Objects with meanings: How artefacts can give us a new take on global history
With a landmark Radio 4 series starting this month, Dave Musgrove talk to its presenter, British Museum director Neil MacGregor, and Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer, about their plans to take us through 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
The history that we get taught in school in Britain is Eurocentric, according to the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. To put that right, to give us a more global view of the past, the British Museum is joining forces with the BBC to produce a major Radio 4 series about the history of the world. The twist is that the story is told through 100 objects, all of them from the museum’s extensive collection.
“The rest of the world only normally enters our history at the moment when Europe establishes contact with those places, usually by invading it,” says MacGregor. “It’s a very odd way of structuring a history of the world we’re now living in.” It’s also an approach that jars with the principles on which the British Museum was established, by parliament, in 1753: “It was intended to put the whole world in one place, and to encourage people to think about having a coherent, interconnected history.
“If you want one grand idea for this series, it really is trying to de-centre history from the Mediterranean,” continues MacGregor. “The very fact that we use the word ‘Mediterranean’ – which suggests that that sea is in the middle of the world – itself tells you something very significant about what is problematic about the way we all learn history.”
So it’s a global history that avowedly isn’t going to place Europe, or indeed Britain, at its heart. However MacGregor does see a British subplot: “The British undercurrent is that ultimately all these objects have wound up here [at the British Museum]. That’s because of the uniquely British engagement with the rest of the world. Compared to certainly any other European country, this engagement is much wider and has been going on for much longer. The fact that the notion of a museum of the world is established by parliament in Britain in the 1750s is already an extraordinarily British thing. There has been a uniquely long-lived attempt by British historians to think about the whole world.”
The conventional way to construct a history is through analysis of historical texts. This series takes a different slant, with the emphasis instead being on objects that in some way demonstrate a particular trend in global history.
“Part of the story of an object is where it’s been and how it’s moved – not just the reasons for which it was brought to London or sent to London, but actually what it did once it was moved here and studied here,” says MacGregor. “The object can also tell us about the way people thought and understood things. The great interest of a history constructed from objects is that you frequently get the meaning of that object, not just in terms of the society at the time it was made but actually when it was later collected, examined, published or excavated.”
Now, clearly, you’re looking to encompass rather a lot of history when you embark on a project with a title like this (and Radio 4 controller, Mark Damazer, is at pains to point out that it’s ‘A’ history of the world not ‘The’ history of the world, so discussion and disagreement with the choices is very much to be encouraged). One hundred objects doesn’t sound all that much to take in the whole swathe of human experience, but a few limits have been imposed. The main thread of the series runs through the last 6,000 years or so of human history, though there is a nod to the earlier origins of humanity through such objects as one of the hand axes from the Olduvai gorge. Secondly, the objects in question have to be things people have made, which rules out the bones of early humans, burials, and bog bodies, though an Egyptian mummy coffin does make the grade. Thirdly, these are objects that are to be found in the collections of the British Museum, so that narrows matters down somewhat – though, of course, the reason for basing the project in the museum is that its collections are both vast and global.
Nevertheless, it’s quite a choice that MacGregor and a team of curators from the British Museum had to make. “Because we’re constructing the programmes chronologically, you’ll get in one week what’s happening across the world at a particular moment. Now occasionally, what’s happening in Europe will be something that’s happening in Britain – but only occasionally, so there aren’t actually that many British objects in the series. There was even serious discussion about whether the European Renaissance should figure in the series at all. Every object really has to fight for its place.”
Given it’s a world history, geographical distribution is critical, though that does present its own problems, as some cultures don’t leave things that survive. For example, there isn’t much Polynesian material from before the 18th century for MacGregor to choose from.
Little room for big hitters
Some of the objects are recognisable British Museum big hitters – the Sutton Hoo helmet and the Lewis chessmen, for instance – but the idea wasn’t simply to come up with a list of stunning artefacts. “We took the deliberate decision not to focus on star iconic objects,” stresses MacGregor. “We’ve got fragments of pottery found on a beach in east Africa because they demonstrate the whole of the Indian Ocean trade links, and it’s important to insist that a lot of our understanding of the past comes from objects that have no inherent artistic or economic worth now.”
So what has MacGregor learnt from the project? “One of the themes is the interconnectedness. Almost every culture is possible only because it’s in contact with other cultures. That’s almost a given of human experience. Recurrent patterns of human behaviour emerge regularly. It’s notable how much the same ideas keep coming back to the same patterns.
“The biggest surprise for me was looking at the history of the Americas, which I really knew nothing about at all – Aztecs and Incas was what I was limited to – and that bears out the point we started with that they only entered my consciousness at the moment when Europeans entered theirs and destroyed them.
“[For much of its history, American cultural development] is happening without any connection with what’s happening elsewhere, whereas anything that’s happening in Europe is connected with what’s happening in Africa and Asia. That operates so coherently and you can see those connections. America is totally separate and yet producing very similar kinds of societies, structures and objects. That I found fascinating – that the American cultures wound up so like Old World cultures.”
Crystal-clear stories to be told
Attempting to tell a history of the world through objects via a medium that doesn’t immediately enable visual analysis of the items in question might at first glance seem a strange idea. Radio 4’s controller, Mark Damazer, himself a history graduate, unsurprisingly thinks otherwise: “You could say that it’s better suited to radio than television because for one thing TV wouldn’t do it. On radio, the programmes have to work without seeing the objects.”
Damazer takes as an example the programme that focuses on the Lothair or Susanna crystal, a beautiful object that was produced in the mid-ninth century AD, probably in Lorraine (modern France), and probably for King Lothair II to show off in the Carolingian court. The crystal takes Neil MacGregor on an intriguing journey into the dynastic disputes of early medieval Europe.
Damazer is of the opinion that a visual approach would distract from what MacGregor is trying to say about the crystal and the story it holds within: “If you’re led by TV, you’ll get lots of shots of Alsace-Lorraine and contemporary tourists drinking beer, but they wouldn’t have the stamina to go through the story. You’ll have a shot of the crystal and a vague stab at the dynast, and then lots of reconstructions of people in medieval uniforms and brass etchings. It all takes you away from the ideas and the importance of that object in its own setting.
“On Radio 4, the audience’s appetite for this degree of illumination is close to bottomless”
“When you’re talking about Radio 4, you’re playing to an audience where the appetite for this degree of illumination, not just knowledge, is close to bottomless.”
Neil MacGregor highlights a few of the objects explored in the Radio 4 series and explains their significance
Making us see ourselves anew
Hand axe from Olduvai gorge, Tanzania, Lower Palaeolithic, about 1.2 million years old
“You need a stone chopper from east Africa in the selection. You’ve got to start with that. That gives you what, I think, is interesting about the whole attempt to make this history through objects rather than any other way.
It was the discovery of the oldest man-made tool at Olduvai that really re-centred the whole of human culture into Africa. The discovery of those objects in the 1930s, made by a team under Louis Leakey in part sponsored by the British Museum, provoked great controversy at the time about whether humans evolved in Africa.
You can talk about this object as evidence of how people are making, thinking, and acting one and a half million years ago, but that’s only part of the story. It’s also important in respect of how the understanding of objects in the 1930s changed the way we think about ourselves. The discovery of these objects helped establish that we are an African species.”
East-West divide defined
Battle with the Centaurs panel from the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, around 440 BC
“One week of the series will be devoted to societies in the age of Confucius. We’ll be looking at how China develops the idea that you can construct a society that will cohere and defend itself on the basis of harmony; how the Persian empire constructs its notion of cohesion and defence, which is by absorbing all the different cultures; and then how Athens does it.
One of the defining notions of Athenian culture is its focus on ‘the other’; that you Athenians/Greeks are not like the people you are fighting – they are different. Neither the Chinese nor the Persians do that. And our choice of the battle with the Centaurs against the Greeks was the defining example of this notion on the Parthenon in Athens, where the enemies are not quite human. That’s the defining moment when Europe constructs the Middle East as the bestial other. You’ve got three contemporary but utterly different notions of how you hold a society together.”
An abiding frontier unearthed
Bust of Augustus from Meroë, Sudan, Roman, about 27–25 BC
“What one object sums up the whole of the Roman empire? We’ve chosen a bust of Augustus, which was found in northern Sudan. Augustus gives you quite a lot to talk about, and it’s a very striking and beautiful sculpture. Yet this particular bust came from a statue that was put up on the southern frontier of the empire in Egypt before being captured by raiders from the Sudan. In fact, it only survived because it was buried after its capture.
The interesting thing about this bust is that it can easily trigger discussions about the frontiers of Rome. It also raises the issue of why the frontier between Egypt and Sudan has always been one of the great geopolitical frontiers. Whether during the time of the British empire, the Islamic empire or the Roman empire, that border between Egypt and Black Africa has always been hotly contested.”
Making reality from myth
Sutton Hoo Helmet from Suffolk, England, Anglo-Saxon, early seventh century AD
“The Sutton Hoo helmet is terrifically interesting because it forced the rewriting of Dark Age England [leading to an acceptance that Anglo-Saxon society was a much richer place both culturally and economically than previously thought]. What’s also fascinating about this object is that it tells us a great deal about the Anglo-Saxons’ links with Scandinavia, while the echoes of Rome are still current.
As well as rewriting our Anglo-Saxon history, Sutton Hoo changed the status of [the epic poem] Beowulf, which until that point was seen as a largely fantastical account of a mythical world. Suddenly you discover that there is a helmet in Beowulf that almost exactly matches this one from Sutton Hoo."
Inside China's empire
Tang Tomb figures from northern China, probably Henan province, early eighth century AD
“Featuring a horse and camel, these Chinese Tang tomb figures demonstrate the openness of Tang China to western central Asia.
We have the obituary tablet of the man whose tomb they are thought to come from [an important official called Liu Tingxun], telling us what he studied and what sort of civil servant he was. We know what sort of exams he had to sit. You can construct from these tomb figures the whole notion of what Tang China was and how different it is to what’s happening in contemporary western Europe (at the time of Charlemagne).
The figures tell us much about a long-running feature of how the Chinese have imagined life after death, as well as saying something important about a specific period in China’s relations with the world. Taking everything you need with you into the afterlife – including servants, animals and lawyers – to litigate on behalf of your soul seems to me a key feature of Chinese civilisation throughout much of history. These figures also open a door into the world of the Tang dynasty, coming from a senior general and civil servant who helped run this extraordinary empire.”
Lewis Chessmen found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, probably made in Norway, about AD 1150–1200
“What you have here is an Indian game, which arrives in northern Europe via the Islamic world. This is the first chess set we know about where the bishop is present. The fact that you’ve got a bishop tells you something absolutely central about European society at that moment. If you’re going to use a chess set as a ritualised form of societies at war, you can’t do that in this period without having the church as part of that warring society.
The fact that the Lewis chessmen are made of walrus ivory is extraordinarily significant. Why? Because it’s that moment in European history when, for reasons that we still don’t quite understand, African and Indian ivory stopped coming through. As a result, you’ve clearly got a disruption in supply, and so a local solution is sought to find the missing import.
The Lewis chessmen were almost certainly made in Trondheim in Norway for a distribution and trade network that went from the Volga to Dublin and across the whole of northern Europe. They were almost certainly found in Lewis because that was on the trade route to Ireland.
This is a good example of how an object – and the way in which it was made and transported – can tell us a great deal about an entire society.”
Tribute that led to imperial downfall
Aztec Serpent from Mexico, 15th–16th century AD
“This may be the double serpent that [the Aztec emperor] Moctezuma gave to [the Spanish conquistador] Cortes. We know that he gave him a turquoise serpent, but even if this isn’t it, it’s still a remarkable thing.
We know from the accounts of the Spaniards when they arrived that the Aztec culture enormously prized turquoise. It was one of the great tribute payments that the conquered societies made to Moctezuma. We can now analyse where the turquoise comes from in a way that wasn’t possible 30 years ago. We can demonstrate that objects like this – that must have been made in the capital, Tenochtitlan, for Moctezuma – drew on turquoise that comes from mines well over a thousand miles apart, with different tribute structures coming together.
The serpent also explains why the tribes around about were so hostile to Moctezuma. They resented making these forced payments, and that’s why the Spanish found allies in them.
The object is a document of a government of a military imperial structure that doesn’t have any written documents. An examination of the object tells you an enormous amount about how the Aztec empire actually functioned.”
Growing global trade networks
Japanese porcelain elephants, Edo period, late 17th century AD
“These figures were made in a country that doesn’t have elephants, for the market in Holland and Britain, also countries that don’t have elephants. So you’ve got this rather extraordinary phenomenon, at both ends, of a real but imagined animal.
At the time, Chinese porcelain was fantastically powerful and popular in Europe. After the fall of the Ming dynasty in China [in the mid-17th century), suddenly there was no Chinese porcelain available for 40 years. Japan stepped in. The Dutch had got the monopoly on this market so the Dutch and the Japanese together started producing these extraordinary objects for the European market. This is the moment that the Dutch East India company, which is the first multinational, absolutely controlled the porcelain world. They wanted to keep the market going and they found an alternative source of supply.
These elephants are evidence for the growing complex web of trade and industry that linked China, Korea and Japan with western Europe 350 years ago. They were made in Japan using skills from Korea to be sold by the Dutch, and examples can still be found on the mantelpieces of houses in Britain.”
The route from one religion to another
Javanese shadow puppet, 17th or 18th century AD
“This is a shadow puppet dating between 1810–11 from Java. At the time, Java was under British control because [the British statesman] Stamford Raffles was so concerned that the French and the Dutch would use it as a base to attack British shipping that the East India Company occupied it. Raffles became obsessed with Javanese culture and wrote the first book on Java as a great culture that the Europeans needed to recognise. He collected objects, and this is one of them.
The shadow puppets are from a Javanese Islamic court, but they are all derived from Indian Hindu stories, particularly the Ramayana, because of the constant flow of trade and religion from India. What's fascinating is that at a particular point, once Java became Muslim, you couldn't easily have human representations in this way. The court wouldn't give up its shadow theatre even though it had gone over to the Islamic faith. So it mutilated the figures and distorted the bodies of the puppets so they are not representing proper human bodies. So what you have in these objects is a fusion of Hindu imagery altered to accommodate Muslim attitudes, which is then collected by Raffles.
Even though Islam is now predominant in Indonesia, the figures from the Ramayana still stand as sculptures in the streets of the country because of its open, porous amalgam of religions."
Behind the arms trade into Africa
African throne of weapons, Maputo, Mozambique, 2001
“This is a throne of weapons decommissioned after the end of the Mozambique civil war in 1992. There was this wonderful bishop, Dinis Sengulane, who decided you needed to show that the weapons were out of use and so commissioned sculptures to turn them into works of public art. It’s a document of the civil wars in post-colonial Africa and post-conflict resolution. But it is also a document of a traditional African object – what you do after you’ve got victory is make a throne out of your enemies’ weapons.
It also demonstrates another truth in a very powerful way. If you carry out a curatorial exercise, and ask where do these weapons come from, you’ll find that none of them were made in Africa. You can’t have a contemporary civil war in Africa without European and American weaponry, without an international arms trade. If you plot the source of the weapons, you’ll plot who was involved in the civil war, who was on whose side and what was going on.”
Visit A History of the World to listen to the series again, read additional commentary and upload your own objects to create your virtual 'History of the World'
Listen: Neil MacGregor discusses the 100 objects on the HistoryExtra podcast