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 Objects captures that awe; puts it to use.
The market for conceptual art, oddly enough, is a good example of our dogged materialism. The concept doesn’t inhere in the object. Once the thing has put over its intellectual payload, you’d think, any piece of conceptual art would be no more interesting in its material form than the slip of paper on which the motto in your Christmas cracker was written. Yet when a couple of new, unsigned copies of Duchamp’s Fountain were recently revealed to exist, there was turmoil in the art world.
So here, in the age of Wikipedia, is A History of the World in 100 Objects—not quite a radio programme, not quite a book, not quite an exhibition at the British Museum, not quite a schools programme, not quite a website. Rather, it’s a mix of all these things, designed to enrich and reinforce each other.
The BBC Radio 4 programme both takes the British Museum out into the world, and brings the world into the British Museum. Cleverly, the objects remain in their proper places in the permanent collection, rather than being hived off into an As-Heard-On-The-Radio-While-You-Were-Doing-The-Washing-Up section. Highlighted on a map visitors can pick up, they become a way to thread through the museum’s other riches.
I was at the museum myself last week and, on my way back from admiring the “Birdman motifs” scratched onto the Easter Island statue (Object 70), I bumped into the crystal skull from the front cover of my paperback of Al Alvarez’s The Savage God. Fake, apparently. Who knew? Well, me, now—and there you have it.
If you look at the website, these 100 objects become just the core of a series of micro-histories—with regional museums and members of the public piling in and contributing objects of their own. This partnership shows the BBC and the British Museum at their best: it is just the sort of thing a national broadcaster and a national collection of stuff ought to be for. We hear so much guff these days about cross-platform synergies, interactivity, traffic driving and so forth, but here’s the real deal: and it’s being done by two dusty old national institutions in the service of getting more people interested in dusty old stuff made by people long gone to dust themselves.
Plus, it’s fronted by a low-temperature Scottish dude with a sense of humour about Catullus. You can’t argue with that.
The book of “A History of the World in 100 Objects” (Allen Lane, £30) is published on 28th October