It’s uncool to gush, but isn’t A History of the World in 100 Objects a really great thing? And its presenter isn’t half bad eitherby Sam Leith / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
I met Neil MacGregor once, years ago, at a Private Eye lunch. My memory being what it is, and Private Eye lunches being what they are, it’s unusual that the encounter stuck in my head. But we hit it off—I can’t remember how we got onto the subject—on the basis of a shared fondness for a particular translation of a Catullus poem by GS Davies, an obscure Scottish schoolmaster. It’s the one about Lesbia’s sparrow turning up its clawed toes, and its opening lines are rendered thus:
Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all, And ilka man o’ decent feelin’ My lassie’s lost her wee, wee bird And that’s a loss, ye’ll ken, past healin’.
Genius, I think you’ll agree. This, I confess, is a roundabout way of getting to what I mean to write about. But it is an opportunity to share those immortal few lines of verse and to admit that, ever since, I have had Neil MacGregor, now director of the British Museum, down as a thoroughly good thing.
Quite what a good thing he is, however, has in recent months been made resplendently evident. It’s uncool to gush, but isn’t A History of the World in 100 Objects one of the great, great things of our age? Intelligent, learned, informative; with MacGregor as its presenter—enthusiastic but properly restrained.
The brilliance of this project is that it recognises how fundamentally knowledge—and for that matter feeling—is tied to objects in the world. There’s an unspoken assumption that the internet will dematerialise knowledge, so to speak: render it ever more abstract, a web of hyperlinks in the electronic ether.
But that is only one model of knowledge. The persistence of objects in the world still inspires a special awe. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, the narrator recalls as a child having a speck of coal dust removed from his eye: “with a tiny instrument resembling an elf’s drumstick, the tender doctor removed from my eyeball the offending black atom! I wonder where that speck is now? The dull, mad fact is that it does exist somewhere.”
Going into the British Museum, one feels a cousin of that thought: a thrilled recognition that, across centuries, here are many such specks. Here from 500 years ago is the double-headed serpent brooch that an Aztec mosaic artist spent hundreds of hours filling out with 2,000 minute fragments of turquoise. And 100…