This is a History Only a Thing Can Tell

Published: May 15, 2012 - 14:16 Updated: May 15, 2012 - 14:17

Book: A history of the World in 100 objects
Author: Neil McGregor
Publisher: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books
Pages: 710
Price: Rs. 895
Year: 2011

Those who are on the losing side, those whose societies are conquered or destroyed, often have only their things to tell their stories
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose Delhi

In 2010, the British Museum, in collaboration with BBC Radio 4, organized a +hundred broadcasts revolving around 100 objects from the incredible collection of the museum. These ranged from the beginning of human history around two million years ago right up to the present day. The intention was that the objects selected had to cover the world, “as far as possible equally”. With five programmes every week, it was decided that a snapshot of the world was to be presented, “spinning the globe at various points in time”.

To add to the narratives, experts and commentators from around the world were invited to join in. At times the project seemed impossible to pull off, especially since the discussions about the objects were to be radio commentaries and not visual presentations. There is a limitation to imagination, even with a precise narrative. So, to accompany the series, an elaborate website was designed that had images of all the objects discussed. It was available all through 2010.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is a collection of essays written by Neil McGregor, Director, British Museum, London. After all, “telling history is what museums are for”. In his preface, he acknowledges that it can only be ‘a’ history of the world. The history that emerges from these objects will seem unfamiliar to many. There are few well-known events and dates. Canonical events like the making of the Roman Empire, the Mongol destruction of Baghdad, the European Renaissance, the Napoleonic wars, the bombing of Hiroshima — are not centre-stage. However, they are “present, refracted through individual objects”— “I have chosen objects that tell many stories rather than bear witness to one single event.”

According to McGregor, “If you want to tell the history of the whole world, a history that does not unduly privilege one part of humanity, you cannot do it through texts alone because only some of the world has ever had texts, while most of the world, for most of the time, has not. Writing is one of humanity’s later achievements, and until fairly recently even many literate societies recorded their concerns and aspirations not only in writing, but in things. Ideally, a history would bring together texts and objects, but it is not always possible… In addition to the problem of mutual miscomprehension, there are the accidental or deliberate distortions of victory. It is, as we know, the victors who write the history, especially when only the victors know how to write. Those who are on the losing side, those whose societies are conquered or destroyed, often have only their things to tell their stories. The Caribbean Taino, the Australian Aboriginals, the African people of Benin and the Incas, all of whom appear in this book, can speak to us now of their past achievements most powerfully through the objects they made: a history told through things gives them a voice.”

McGregor is very frank in his assessment of putting together a history via objects. It is not an easy task, as many of them, even with scientific advancement, are quite difficult to date. To quote from the fabulous introduction:

“With objects, we do, of course, have structures of expertise — archaeological, scientific, anthropological — which allow us to ask critical questions. …For many cultures this is the way forward… the Sutton Hoo helmet, the Moche culture of Peru, the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs has masked for us the Aztec conquest of the Huastec people: because of these revolutions of history the voice of the Huastec is now recoverable only at two removes, through a Spanish version of what the Aztecs told them.”

A startling number of these objects bear on them marks of later events. Sometimes this is merely the damage that comes with time, like the broken head-dress on the Huastec goddess, or the clumsy excavation, the forceful removal. But, frequently, later interventions were designed deliberately to change meaning or to reflect the pride or pleasures of new ownership. The object becomes a document not just of the world for which it was made, but of the later periods which altered it.

The Jomon pot, for example, speaks of the precocious Japanese achievement in ceramics and the origins of stews and soups many thousands of years ago, but its gilded inside tells of a later, aestheticizing Japan, conscious now of its own particular traditions, revisiting and honouring its long history: the object has become a commentary on itself.

The African wooden slit drum is an even more remarkable example of an object’s many lives. Made in the shape of a calf for a ruler probably in northern Congo, it was rebranded as an Islamic object in Khartoum, and then, captured by Lord Kitchener, carved with Queen Victoria’s crown and sent to Windsor — a wooden narrative of conquests and
empires. I do not think any text could combine so many histories of Africa and Europe, nor make them so powerfully immediate.

This is a history only a thing can tell.

There is another way in which the biographies of things change over time with changing technology that allow museum scholars to ask new questions. Science is rewriting history in completely unexpected ways. For instance, new methods of medical examination allow us intimate knowledge of the ailments of ancient Egyptians and of the talismans they took with them into afterlife.

‘It is, as we know, the victors who write the history, especially when only the victors know how to write’

Some fascinating objects that are showcased in this book are an etching of Durer’s rhinoceros, a beast which he drew but never saw. The others are the Indus seal,the mummy of Hornedjitef, the statue of Ramesses II, the Paracas textile, the coin with the head of Alexander, the pillar of Ashoka, the Arabian bronze hand, the Sutton Hoo helmet, the Moche warrior pot, the Maya relief of royal blood-letting, the harem wall painting fragments, the Lothair crystal, the Kilwa pot sherds, the Lewis chessmen, the Ming banknote, the Kakiemon elephants, the jade Bi, the Australian bark shield, the early Victorian tea set, the Russian revolutionary plate and a credit card.

The care with which each essay has been written is evident from this description of the mummy of Hornedjitef, from Thebes (near Luxor), Egypt. Hornedjitef was a high-ranking Egyptian priest, probably in the Temple of Amun at Karnak during the reign of Ptolemy III — that is, between 246 and 222 BC.

With careful examination, including scientific tools like CT scans at their disposal, museologists like John Taylor, Curator, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum, who has taken some of the mummies to London hospitals for special scans, had this to say about the Hornedjitef mummy: “We can now say that Hornedjitef was middle-aged to elderly when he died, and that he was mummified according to the best methods available at the time. We know that his internal organs were taken out, carefully packaged up and then put back inside him; we can see them there, deep inside. We can see that they’ve poured resins — expensive oils — into his body to preserve him, and we can also detect amulets, rings and jewellery and little charms placed on him beneath the wrappings to protect him on his journey to the afterlife. If you unwrap a mummy it’s a very destructive process, and the amulets, which are very small, can move out of place; the positioning of them was absolutely crucial to their magical function, and by scanning the mummy we see them all exactly in position in the same relationship to each other that they had when they were placed there thousands of years ago, so that is a huge gain in knowledge. We can also examine the teeth in great detail, establishing the wear and the dental disease that they suffered from; we can look at the bones, and have seen that Hornedjitef had arthritis in his back, which must have been very painful.”

Similarly, there are little nuggets of information about other objects. For instance, the coin with the head of Alexander, a familiar object across the world, minted around 300 bc, is actually of King Lysimachus. He was one of Alexander’s generals and companions. After Alexander’s death, his empire disintegrated. Lysimachus ruled Thrace from Alexander’s death until his own in 281 bc. To capitalize upon the image and power that Alexander had built, Lysimachus appropriated it for his own
political mileage. Building upon the reputation of a dead legend was not uncommon. Ramesses II repeated the pattern. He was wily and unscrupulous. To save time and money he simply changed the inscriptions on pre-existing sculptures so that they bore his name and glorified his achievements.

‘The Caribbean Taino, Australian Aboriginals, African people of Benin and the Incas… can speak to us now of their past achievements most powerfully through the objects they made: a history told through things gives them a voice…’

The expanse of history that is captured in these objects is astounding. The Lewis chessmen, discovered in 1831, encapsulates an entire history of the evolution of the rules of the game. Much of this story is told through positions and moves allowed to the chess pieces, especially the position the queen occupies on the board. These stories hidden in the objects hold true for the Indus seals, the Kilwa pot sherds and the Lothair crystal, to name a few. All these objects, discovered decades ago, continue to be a mystery to researchers, but despite years of patient work, the ‘complete’ history of these objects is far from unravelled.

The picture reproductions are stunning. This interesting history of the world broadens the mind and makes one scamper off in search of more information. Watching McGregor deliver his TED talk on this project is an indescribable experience. He is intensely energetic and passionate about his subject. He is the ideal director-cum-teacher for a museum. Enthusiasm, combined with discipline and knowledge about his subject, marks his presence. Much of this is transmitted to the text he has created. It is a pleasure to dip into this treasure, and get a completely different sense of history, away from the canonical one.  

Those who are on the losing side, those whose societies are conquered or destroyed, often have only their things to tell their stories
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose Delhi 

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