A History of the World in 100 Objects

Paul Cartledge believes that the book arising from Radio 4’s popular history series is a valuable artefact in itself

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Reviewed by: Paul Cartledge
Author: Neil MacGregor
Publisher: Penguin
Price (RRP): £30

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From the opening man-made object – the bespoke mid-third-century BC mummy of Egyptian sun-god devotee Hornedjitef – right through to the last – an up-to-the-minute solar-powered lamp and charger mass-produced in China – the sun keeps shining through this radiantly illuminating and enlightening read.

A recent book devoted to that quintessentially suprahuman object was subtitled “the epic story of the star that gives us life”. In his own special way, Neil MacGregor, the director of
the British Museum, is also a star who gives us all light.

At the moment of his appointment in 2002 – something of a nadir for that august, quarter-of-a-millennium-old institution – an observant museum-sector colleague both deplored the
BM’s recent purchase of a mass-produced tea towel of execrable design and urged that it start to use properly the wonderful evidence almost uniquely at its disposal to tell “many different histories”.

That colleague, Julian Spalding (former director of Glasgow Museums), is also the author of The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historical Collections, and it is almost as if Neil MacGregor has taken him at his word (minus the tea towel, obviously, though he does mention a soccer shirt).

A section of his typically thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive and sophisticated introduction is entitled “The Necessary Poetry of Things”, and in and through this splendid object, a genuine artefact (for which the publishers, and above all publishing director Stuart Proffitt, deserve huge credit), he has chosen to tell his version of the biggest story of all – of the world, before as well as after the advent of homo sapiens.

In case there is anyone on the planet who has still not heard the news, this is the book of an astronomically successful BBC Radio 4 series broadcast in three tranches during 20 weeks of 2010. Well over ten million podcasts alone were downloaded, about half from outside the BBC’s home reach.

Many auditors chose (as I did) to ‘listen again’, that is hear the programmes online while viewing – and manipulating – images of the object(s) under discussion and reading mini-essays about them by curators, other experts and non-experts alike. In the present weighty tome fans now possess a permanent and mighty handsome (if not entirely flawless) bibliometric avatar of a deeply pleasurable learning experience.

Actually, well over 100 objects or things – out of the eight million or so in the collection, from which it took Dr MacGregor and his BM colleagues some three years to make their often agonised choices – are crisply and wittily discussed, beautifully illustrated, and sufficiently documented in these 700 pages. By no means all of them are ‘treasures’.

Africa features strongly from the start, as noted, and China is there at the finish, as often before. If any one continent may be thought to have taken a bit of a hit, it is perhaps Europe, or at least Mediterranean Europe, the unarguably looming presence of which the author seems keen to downplay.

His culture-heroes – the Pacific Buddhist ruler Ashoka and the Java-expert Sir Stamford Raffles, for conspicuous examples – are elsewhere, in both conceptual and geographical space.

Dr MacGregor all along modestly emphasised collegiality and collectivity in the making of the radio series, but only he could have delivered the 15-minute talks as he did. Only he could have persuaded a galaxy of talking heads, from Indian intellectual Amartya Sen through Mozambican artist Kester to Chinese poet Yang Lian, to add their two penn’orth, and, above all, only he could have crafted this very particular, idiosyncratic and tendentious, inevitably, but also transcendently humane, history.  

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Paul Cartledge is the AG leventis professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University