A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
Pages: 614 plus introduction (Paperback)
Form: Non-Fiction, History
A golden galleon, a stone-age tool, a credit card … every object tells a story.
This acclaimed history tells the story of the world, and our place in it, in an entirely new way, through 100 things we have either admired and preserved, or used, broken and thrown away. It will take you on a journey back in time and across the globe, to see how we humans have shaped our world, and been shaped by it, over the past two million years.
A History of the World in 100 objects started life as a radio programme by the BBC (podcasts still available to download for free here) in which the director of the British Museum used 100 very varied objects from the museum’s collections to emphasise key points and ideas throughout human history. Although I didn’t listen to it at the time (I have now dowloaded the podcasts), as a history student with an interest in archaeology and museum’s I was aware of it, so a few years later when I saw this beautiful blue copy of the book sitting on the ‘buy one get one half-price’ table in Waterstone’s it was impossible to resist. I had intended, like several people I know through my museum volunteering, to read one entry a day, but instantly found myself enjoying it so much that I was devouring whole blocks of the book at a time and having to force myself to stop and save some for later.
The objects are arranged in roughly chronological order and arranged in blocks of five by theme (so for example we have ‘The First Cities and States’, ‘The Beginnings of Science and Literature’ ‘Pilgrims, Raiders and Traders’). Each object has its own short chapter of about 5 or 6 pages explaining what it is, how and who made it, and what it’s historical and cultural significance is, each headed by a small but high quality black and white photograph of the object, making it a very accessible read even for those who might normally feel daunted by non-fiction and an easy book to dip in and out of at leisure (no footnotes here and everything explained simply yet intelligently). Unfortunately it would make the book far too expensive to include large, coloured, photographs of each object, which is a bit disapointig – though it does have high-quality coloured inserts for about 30 of them. However, being based on a BBC radio series, supplementary coloured (and zoomable!) photos, often from a variety of angles are available online – a discovery that led to me reading the whole book with my laptop at my side, frequently pausing to zoom in and study the objects in more detail. If you’re unaware of that resource though – and it isn’t obviously advertised in the book itself – the size of some of the pictures, particularly for those objects with lots of intricate details, could be quite frustrating. Overall though, and for the price market it’s aiming at, this is an absolutely beautifully put together and classy lookong book that should be very possible to enjoy even without using these internet resources.
This isn’t a history such as conventional history books might tell either. It’s not, predominantly, about ‘big events and famous people’ (though a few certainly do appear) but about the development of humanity and the development of ideas – writing, trade, religion, attitudes. The objects are there not just because they’re beautifully crafted or fascinating in their own right, but to provide snapshots of the time and place they were created in. They range from high status objects made for kings and rulers to fragments of broken pottery and navigational tools – each telling a little about the world it came from. Some of these we now a lot about down to the owner of the object itself or even the exact date it was made, in other cases the objects are the only material evidence left through which to draw conclusions about the people who made them. This object-based method is it’s a one of my favourite ways of looking at history or trying to understand other cultures and one that museums are great for. I learnt a ridiculous amount of ‘useless’ but totally fascinating facts from this book and have to admit to showing them off a bit whenever I can fit it into conversation.
And onto critique. By its very nature it’s a history of the world framed from a western (specifically a British) perspective, but it does a lot to include objects from a variety of cultures across almost the whole globe, to put the emphasis on a multitude of cultures both still existing and those long destroyed, and to acknowledge the limitations of itself as a ‘complete history’. I was very impressed right from the introduction, which discussed the flaws and problems inherent in picking out just 100 objects to illustrate the whole of human history to begin with, and went on to emphasise the importance of objects in understanding other cultures rather than relying on second-hand accounts from those who colonised or destroyed them. Unlike the other ‘History of the World’ book I read recently this one actually does read like a history of the world and not a ‘history of Europe with occasional interludes to other places’. The introduction is correct though when it says it’s impossible to represent everyone in just 100 objects – the absence of Jewish objects is certainly noticeable (with the exception of a Hebrew astrolabe included to show medieval communication between Christians, Jews, and Muslims) in a book which has several objects from the development of every other major world religion, as is the absence of Innuit or Yupik objects when most other areas of the globe are covered. You can’t fit in everything in just 100 objects, but something from one of the most inhospitable areas that humanity has managed to live in and adapt to would have been nice.
Then there’s the uncomfortable question of provenance that a reader can’t help but raising in many cases, even if the book tends to downplay it – why does the British Museum have all these wonderful objects? Shouldn’t they be given back to Greece/Egypt/South America etc. when they were acquired in such questionable and often violent ways*. The ownership is far from clear-cut for several of the most stunning items in this book. They make for fascinating history of course, and the book would be a poorer history of the world without them – the circumstances they were acquired in is as much part of that history as the circumstances they were created in and it’s impossible to escape the colonial narrative that parallels the intended global one – but it’s something you can’t help but be aware of and made to feel slightly uncomfortable about when reading some of the entries. A lot of the chapters, I have to emphasise, are for objects freely given or fairly paid for, not every foreign object in a museum has been seized unfairly, but some of the British Museum’s most famous objects certainly have been and I don’t find their arguments for keeping many of them particularly convincing.
Overall though I think it’s an absolutely wonderful book, absolutely deserving of five stars, and probably one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. I would happily recommend to anyone with an interest in history, archaeology or anthropology. I’m not so sure on some of the objects picked for the ‘modern’ chapters (I would have liked to see a modern reliable contraceptive on there or at least mentioned) but for the for the 95+ historical objects I was absolutely hooked. It’s a very accessible read but there is a hell of a lot of fascinating information packed into each short chapter and it’s a book that definitely warrants dipping back into at a later date. I was very impressed with the range of objects, learnt a lot of new facts, gained much more of an understanding about periods of history or cultures that I knew shamefully little about before, and have a whole host of new objects to look out for next time I’m in the British Museum – which hopefully won’t be too far away if the trainlines could just stop flooding for a few days!
* not particularly relevent to the book but one of the most telling labels I’ve ever seen in a museum was in one of the ones I volunteer at, an anthropology museum that prides itself on preserving, where possible, the original Victorian labels. After identifying the object it simply read ‘….taken from a child in Africa’.