Neil MacGregor, New York: Penguin Books, 2010, 707 pp.
Reviewed by Michael Feinberg
It would be a mistake to reduce Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects to a visitor’s guide to the British Museum, the product of a popular BBC telecommunication, or a historical textbook. MacGregor’s collection is all of those things, but it is much more as well. Objects ranging from a prehistoric chopping tool to a twenty-first century credit card demonstrate the growth and movement of various human civilizations. How can one create a dynamic chronicle of the world that spans two million years, six continents, hundreds of nations, and thousands of social groups? Rather than delineating a vast array of historical events into a larger pattern (or narrative), MacGregor, director of the British Museum, turns to art objects and historical artifacts. His is a fresh take on narrating world history that suggests how concrete objects transcend temporalities, scales, and places. Both a two-million-year old chopping tool (object 2) as well as a contemporary credit card (object 99) have crossed hundreds of hands, continents, and miles to find their respective homes in the British Museum. MacGregor’s book then, is not just a recounting of each “artifact’s” unique history, but also a work that explores how objects communicate with contemporary audiences. Artifacts contain messages prescribed by their original creators in addition to clues about complex social and political processes. MacGregor argues that a text cannot recount the many histories of the various continents, but an artifact can (xxi).
MacGregor organizes one hundred objects in chorological order (from 2,000,000 BC to 2010 CE) in addition to placing them in twenty “parts” or thematic chapters. For example, Edo people’s plaques and a Mesoamerican serpent demonstrate “the first global economy”; a Victorian tea set and a Sudanese drum illustrate the origins of mass production. Although MacGregor relies on the research of British Museum curators as well as an international group of academics, this does not mean the book is only of interest for the erudite. Students, museum visitors, and others from the general public would very much appreciate the book’s accessible and often times humorous descriptions, which are paired with large color photographs of each object.
The chronological as well as thematic organization should be applauded for its ability to communicate how objects embody new meanings as they travel across times and contexts. This ranges from the origins of the object’s creation to where the object is currently housed. Artifacts such as Mexican Codex Map (object 84) and a shadow puppet of Bima (object 83) may share more in common than previously thought. The map demonstrates Spanish missionary influence in Mexico while the puppet shows how Hindu and Buddhist traditions mingled with the growth of Islam. Both point towards the roles of religious tolerance and intolerance (part seventeen). Similarly, MacGregor’s concluding section examines a throne of weapons (object 99) and a solar powered lamp (object 100). They tell the story of science’s role in the search for sustainable energy in Europe and postcolonial struggles in Africa. The theme of science or “The World of Our Making” bridges these two very different objects. But this theme also points towards science’s ability to improve and complicate the human condition. Science can foster a future of alterative energy and promote violent postcolonial warfare. Indeed, these ideas embrace different connotations, depending upon the context. MacGregor implies that artifacts ought to be valued for their ability to demonstrate t ubiquity as well as locality.
The diversity of objects MacGregor selected is an impressive testament to the stature of the British Museum. But just how the museum acquired all these objects is underplayed in MacGregor’s object histories. Readers may wish to consult with other sources to get a more detailed story of the museum’s relationship to imperialism as well as of the finer historical details of colonially acquired objects. For example, MacGregor’s explanation of the Benin City Plaque addresses the massive 1897 British raid on the Oba’s palace as an ambiguously disputed attack (501). Scholars have suggested that British colonial authorities “provoked” the Edo into attacking Europeans in order to justify future imperialistic conquests. This should not discredit MacGregor’s intellectual contributions. MacGregor does not specifically seek to reconcile colonial relationships. Rather, the book aims to deconstruct a single narrative of human civilization. How can historians account for the particularities of the plaque when it passed through the hands of the Edo, Portuguese, British colonizers, commodity traders, and contemporary museum audiences? The plaque embraces not only the story of the British Raid, but also of the the trade between the Edo and the Portuguese, of the Edo people’s local social practices, and of colonially acquired objects. Finally, the plaque also commemorates assumptions contemporary viewers may possess regarding the African continent. The plaque’s current home at the British Museum should not be thought of as the plaque’s final and only resting place, but rather as part of the greater histories the plaques embrace.
The complexity of the book’s explicit and implicit arguments, alongside its accessible organization and writing style would be of use to students of art history, history, anthropology, museum studies, politics, and geography. Likewise, instructors could also use MacGregor’s text as an example of how to organize course material. Lectures and seminars can be structured around case study examples. Instead of rolling through the parade of images that occurs in most introductory art history courses, an instructor could select a few objects from the book to discuss in lecture. For example, a lecture could focus on the Benin City plaque (object 77) and discuss the complexity of colonial struggles. The plaque can also be used to teach a meta-history pertaining to the way in which the art historical discipline has accounted for “non-Western” art objects. Students many appreciate reading MacGregor alongside figures such as Homi Bhabha or Edward Said to further discuss colonial and postcolonial issues.
Scholars, students, and the general public will find MacGregor’s work to be a helpful tool in thinking about how artifacts can transcend multiple levels of scale. MacGregor’s artifacts demonstrate that a single object recounts numerous stories of multiple human civilizations. The book also encourages us to forge contemporary relationships with objects (and their histories) of the past.