Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A History of the World in 100 Objects

The British Museum / One of the world's greatest museums
of human history and culture.

Imagine a book that is both an intellectual and visual feast, and allows you to travel back in time and across the globe to see how the human experience has shaped the world and been shaped by it over the past two million years.

In A History of the World in 100 Objects, based on the audacious and popular BBC Radio 4 series, author Neil MacGregor "takes a dramatically original approach to the history of humanity" by using objects left behind by previous civilizations ~ often accidentally ~ as "prisms through which we can explore past worlds and the lives of the men and women who lived in them."

A History of the World in 100 Objects begins with the story of a chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Africa, a relic that is between 1.8-2 million years old and is one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands. This hefty, 707-page book, which we recently checked out from our local public library, concludes with a story about an object from the modern, twenty-first century: a solar-powered lamp and charger manufactured in Shenzhen, Guandong, China, that is representative of the world we live in today.

A History of the World /
From the handaxe to the credit card.

According to the book's dust jacket, Neil MacGregor's aim "is not simply to describe these remarkable things, but to show us their significance ~ how a stone pillar tells us about a great Indian emperor preaching tolerance to his people, how Spanish pieces of eight tell us about the beginning of a global currency, or how an early Victorian tea set tells us about the impact of empire."

MacGregor, 65, who has been the director of the British Museum since 2002, writes: "The story is told exclusively through the things that humans have made ~ all sorts of things, carefully designed and then either admired and preserved, or used, broken and thrown away. I've chosen just a hundred objects from different points on our journey ~ from a cooking pot to a golden galleon, from a Stone Age tool to a credit card, and each object comes from the collection of the British Museum."

Through these 100 objects, MacGregor describes history as a kaleidoscope ~ "shifting, interconnected, constantly surprising, and shaping our world today in ways that most of us have never imagined."

At the time of the book's publishing last October, Carol Vogel of the New York Times wrote: "These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior."

During a 2005 spring vacation trip to London, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the British Museum. What's truly remarkable about this museum, replete with its Greek Revival facade and first opened to the public in 1759, is that its holdings do not including any paintings. However, what this museum does include is an impressive collection of antiquities. As it turned out, my visit to the British Museum was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I have ever spent at a museum.

The Rosetta Stone / This must-see
attraction was added to
the museum's collection in 1802.
Among many things that stood out for me in the breadth of the museum's collections was seeing the Rosetta Stone up close and personal.

Like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, everyone crowded around, wanting to catch a glimpse of the Rosetta Stone and photograph it.

The Rosetta Stone, found at el-Rashid, Egypt in 196 B.C., is the 33rd of 100 objects whose story is told by MacGregor and, among visitors to the museum, it is definitely a must-see attraction.

"Every day when I walk through the Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum there are tour guides speaking every imaginable language addressing groups of visitors, all craning to see this object. It is on every visitor's itinerary, and, with the mummies, it's the most popular object in the British Museum," writes MacGregor.

"Why? It's decidedly dull to look at ~ a grey stone about the size of one of those large suitcases you see people trundling around on wheels at airports," adds MacGregor. "The rough edges show that it's been broken from a larger stone, with the fractures cutting across the text that covers one side. And when you read that text, it's pretty dull too ~ it's mostly bureaucratic jargon about tax concessions. But, as so often in the Museum, appearances are deceptive."

MacGregor continues: "This dreary bit of broken granite has played a starring role in three fascinating and different stories: the story of the Greek kings who ruled in Alexandria after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt; the story of the French and British imperial competition across the Middle East after Napoleon invaded Egypt; and the extraordinary but peaceful scholarly contest that led to the most famous decipherment in history ~ the cracking of hieroglyphics."

What matters now, writes MacGregor, "is not what the stone says but that it says it three times in three different languages: in Classical Greek, the language of the Greek rules and the state administration, and then in two forms of ancient Egyptian: the everyday writing of the people (known as Demotic) and the priestly hieroglyphics which had for centuries baffled Europeans. It was the Rosetta Stone that changed all that; it dramatically opened up the entire world of ancient Egypt to scholarship."

What I find truly amazing after reading the chapter about the Rosetta Stone is that it survived unread through 2,000 years of various occupations, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Muslim Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Eventually, the 1798 Napoleon-led French military invasion of Egypt ("they wanted to cut the British route to India") yielded the Rosetta Stone. "The French seized the stone as a trophy of war, but it never made it back to Paris. With his fleet destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon himself returned to France, leaving the French army behind. In 1801, the French surrendered to the British and Egyptian generals. The terms of the Treaty of Alexandria included the handing over of antiquities, among them the Rosetta Stone."

Soon, the stone found its way to Great Britain for good after its capture by the British Army where it was presented to the British Museum by King George III. The Rosetta Stone has been displayed in the public domain at the British Museum since 1802.

Today, the Rosetta Stone is freely available for the world's scholars to see. Ironically, it was a French scholar, Jean-Francois Champollion, who finally cracked the stone's hieroglyphics in 1822. For the British Museum's many visitors, who wait patiently like I did on a Sunday afternoon in March 2005 for a fleeting glimpse, seeing the Rosetta Stone is a thrill of a lifetime and a chance opportunity to photograph it for posterity.

Photographs of the British Museum and the Rosetta Stone by Michael Dickens, copyright 2005. 

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