Monday, 6 June 2011

Review: A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor

This was originally a radio series which made the unsurprising transition to book form. The book itself is pretty hefty, a burglar-killer of a tome, in fact.

The objects are all taken from the British Museum, which has an extensive enough collection to allow for almost all of human history and a broad spread of geographical locations to be covered. There are one or more colour photographs of every object, which vary in size from a few inches wide to an Easter Island statue. The photography is well done, with one or two minor exceptions (an interesting shadow puppet from Java is hard to make out because the background and its head are both black).

Each object has around half a dozen pages dedicated to it, describing the item itself as well as outlining the context in which it was created. Some of them are perhaps expected, whereas others are less well known and all the more interesting for it. I especially liked reading about the astrolabe, which is a cunning device from several centuries ago that functioned almost like a watch and satnav.

The items are arranged in approximately chronological order, within little sections (the Enlightenment being from the latter 18th century to the start of the 20th, for example). The gaps between the first few objects are wider than later on, as might be expected.

In terms of selection, I think it’s excellent. Picking 100 objects, given that the whole of human history from across the globe has to be covered, must be a bloody difficult task but I think MacGregor does well. There are plenty of items from China, Australasia, Africa and South America, as well as the more familiar items from Europe.

Personally, I found the Chinese items to be amongst the most interesting. There’s Chinese jade, a very early banknote (unfortunately, they suffered inflation trouble and a loss of faith in the currency, something that would never happen today, I’m sure…) and, of course, china itself.

The objects are a mixture, with some political in nature (the Qianlong Emperor defacing/inscribing an ancient jade ornament with his message, Suffragettes doing likewise with a penny), some commemorating great rulers like Alexander or Croesus and others of religious or martial significance.

Due to the nature of the book (hefty and with 100 discrete sections) it’s ideal for reading in small doses over a long period, and is very enjoyable.

Reminds me, in that regard, of The Art of War: Great Commanders of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, edited by Andrew Roberts and with contributions from numerous historians. I’ll probably review that in the nearish future, actually.


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