Book Review – ‘A History of the World in 100 objects’ by Neil MacGregor

History is taught universally across the world in the same manner. We visit an important event in the point in time and narrate the story, often from the perspective of the story teller. To do this we rely on the surviving written documents left to us by the makers of history. We all know by now that history is written by winners not losers and quite often, not surprisingly, winners are the only ones who know how to write. What about the history of the vanquished? Surely they too had a history of their own, but none of that is generally shared or passed on through generations. Whatever little we know comes from the second or third accounts recorded by the victors. There is very little of the original voice speaking and telling us his story. The only original records are the artefacts, but artefacts on their own tell nothing. However a careful interrogation and analysis of artefacts can reveal a lot and give voices to some of those who couldn’t tell their story in the first place.

This is exactly what Neil MacGregor, Art Historian and the just-retired Director of British Museum does through his book, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. Neil picks up 100 objects from the massive British Museum collections and starts telling the story of the object at a time. What is unique about the story is, it is not just the story of the object in its context but it is the simultaneous story of the world as it is being created at that point in time. Neil brings together this wider global context to the object and the story and then links them together to give us a very unique but holistic perspective of the history as it is being made globally at the same time. Neil then explores these mini global stories to see if there are any bigger global themes that are emerging at the same time. It is a fascinating discovery to learn that most sophisticated cultures developed simultaneously with almost no contact with each other. For instance Latin America had no contact with the rest of the world till Columbus landed there in 1492, yet the societies there were every bit as developed and cultured as say the Asian or European societies.

This exercise of returning the artefact to its former life and engaging with it as generously and as poetically as we can in the hope of winning the insights it may deliver is quite delightful. For instance, pottery fragments found at the bottom of the cliff at Kilwa in Tanzania might easily pass off as waste having been dumped and of little value. However a careful examination opens up virtually a new world. The Green and blue-and-white porcelains seem to have travelled from China, where they were mass produced, the ones bearing the Islamic decoration must have come from Persia, whereas few others are from indigenous East African earthenware productions. Now this is a very interesting discovery and by putting the objects in their contexts we get to know of a much bigger story. First, all these fragments from different parts of the world dumped in a place, isn’t coincidence. The original pottery was meant for use by the native Africans at the time. Africa then was a major trading centre and goods from Asia and Middle East made their way into Europe through Africa. And several coastal cities were part of very rich powerful African kingdoms. So, it makes perfect sense for the pottery fragments to be found in Kilwa only that it helps us re-visit and re-adjust our understanding of Africa and how powerful it once was.

The book also reveals a lot about how legacy of some of the sophisticated cultures of the world has been all but lost. The Australian Aboriginal or the Hawaiians had a culture every bit as complex as any other culture of the time, but there are few artefacts available from those societies to tell us their stories. The primary reason for this is the fact that most of their objects of use were usually made from organic materials which perished over time and so nothing remains. The bark shield taken away by Captain James Cook from the native Aboriginal or the Feather Helmet he received from the Hawaiians are some of the very few organic remains from these cultures and they tell us a story of a very dynamic and vibrant culture.

There are several instances in history when objects from the earlier times have been taken and reclaimed in certain ways to project glory to the current owners. Artefacts belonging to earlier history were written upon to tell the history of that time. While we might find this shocking or defacing of an invaluable object, nonetheless today for us this is a fascinating piece of history that tells us not just one but two different histories at two different times associated with the same object. A case in point is that of the jade ring or ‘bi’ that the Chinese emperor Qianlong discovered. Even though the jade ring was similar to the ones found from the tombs of the Zhang dynasty from 1500 BC its real purpose was not clear to the emperor. So, the emperor, a poet, wrote a poem on the jade itself about his attempts to make sense of the purpose of the ring. He eventually concludes the ring is a bowl stand and so he would use it for keeping a bowl on it. Stories such as these reveal so much about the people and their times.

Modern technology has enabled us to gain a lot of new information and has given further insights and new meanings to things already known, in the process helping us revise our worldview. For instance, with the new medical examination methods available to us we are now able to have an intimate knowledge of the ailments that affected the ancient Egyptians by investigating their mummies. However, there are still some areas that would probably need to wait before we can get a better understanding of them. For example if we take the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico it masks the Aztecs conquest of the Huastecs that happened only a century earlier. What we know of Huastecs is what Aztecs told Spanish about them. We don’t really know what Huastecs thought of themselves or their place in the world.

The book is surely a gem for history lovers not to miss, however few things definitely need pointing out. First, the book is limited in the story telling of the history of the world because the objects picked up are entirely from the British Museum collection and surely a large part of the world history was made through objects outside of the British Museum collections. A much more comprehensive story could have been told by considering collections from museums worldwide. Second, a closer scrutiny of the number of objects taken from each region of the world shows that significant numbers have come from Europe rather than outside, seeming to confirm that it isn’t after all such a holistic view of the world history as one might have wanted it to be.

If one wants a joined up view of the world history and how it has been in the developing and making continuously for the past two million years since the first interactions of humans with it, then a whistle-stop tour of the world – through a time span of two million years and through a geographical stretch that covers the entire globe – taken by way of completely immersing in this wonderful book is the best way of doing it. Just to reiterate, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ is a absolute not to be missed book for any passionate follower of history or any history enthusiast.


Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor was born in Glasgow in 1946 and His parents, Alexander and Anna MacGregor, were doctors. Known for his extraordinary achievements, he is a British art historian and museum director.
This book is available in many formats. So go ahead and read it!

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