Thursday, October 27, 2011

Neil MacGregor’s 100 Objects

Of Neil MacGregor’s 100 objects in his very nice book “A History of the World in 100 Objects” I tend to agree the vast majority. Yet some critical developments are lacking, or aren’t properly represented, and some are over-emphasized. MacGregor only has the items of his collection, The British Museum of which he is the Director, to work with – the book is as much a tribute to the Museum as it is a history. Cleverly many modern stories are told through ancient objects by proxy of the circumstances of their collection. So we get Napoleon through the Rosetta Stone, and Southeast Asia’s colonization through a stone head of Buddha from Java brought back by English adventurer Sir Stamford Raffles. I think this is fair to a point. The background of an object should be fair game to make sense of it, so long as the object itself describes the background in some way. A Victorian tea set, for example, shows the extent of the British Empire that got tea from China, sugar from the Caribbean, and, being a Wedgewood, touches upon the growing consumer middle class of the 19th Century.

Yet I still maintain some pieces aren’t as valuable to the list’s purpose of being a history. Further – there is a British bias and a Western bias. Two of the more recent objects are Hokusai’s famous Japanese print, The Wave, and David Hockney’s In the Dull Village, a sketch depicting two men in bed from the 1960s. Detail is given about Hockney and Hockney’s life, but nothing about the artist Hokusai. So, too, is there a bit of a British bias. We can’t overlook the Empire, but one out of every ten items is from Britain, which is a bit much.

My final concern is that some object specifically had an important role to play in history while others are symbolic of broader stories and trends. Perhaps one or the other, or some sort of explanation would have been nice. But, like most all lists of things of import, it is personal and reflects Mr. MacGregor’s view of history.
Here are those items which I think are deserved, and the story they tell:

Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool – Tools!

Olduvai Handaxe – Handaxes were critical multi-tools of our ancestors.

French Swimming Reindeer Carving – One of the earliest pieces of decorative art.

Clovis Spear point – Homo Sapiens reach the Americas, kill things.

Papuan Bird-Shaped Pestle – Evidence of cooking, agriculture. Humans outside Eurasia.

Egyptian Cattle Ceramic Figurines – Indicate the importance of domestication.

Maya Maize God – Shows rise of agriculture in Americas.

Japanese Jomon Pot – Ceramics!

Egyptian King’s Sandal Label – Weird, but has depictions of early state-building, and power politics.

Ur Box (Battle Standard?) – Depicts tax collection: More state building.

Indus Seal – India starts to be a state.

Mesopotamian Cuneiform Writing Tablet – World’s first writing as we know it, depicts bureaucratic rationing of beer in lieu of pay.

Nineveh Flood Tablet – Tells the flood story in non-Biblical context.

Egyptian Mathematical Papyrus – Papyrus and Math in one object. Nice.

Egyptian Statue of Ramses II – To rule an empire put your face everywhere (and propaganda is born).

Assyrian Reliefs – Assyrians first carved out the Middle East as we now it. Reliefs depict refugees of territorial war that defined the age of early empire.

Chinese Zhou Vessel – Complex bronze work, indicating advanced society, created for Chinese ancestor worship.

Peruvian Textile – Evidence of complex society and artisanship in the Americas.

Turkish Gold Coin – Money! No more beer rationing.

Persian Chariot Model – Gold model depicts nature of the Persian state, with famous roads.

Greek Parthenon Sculpture: Centaur and Lapith – Classical Greece in marble symbolizing struggle between brutishness and reason.

Indian Pillar of Ashoka – Ashoka is generally the textbook case of benevolent monarchy, and this marks the unification and influence of Buddhism on India.

Egyptian Mummy – Ptolemaic mummy symbolizes influence of post-Alexander Mediterranean, co-opting ancient traditions.

Chinese Han Lacquer Cup – Craft details show influence of the critical Chinese bureaucracy.

Roman Head of Augustus – Emblemic of the Pax Romana.

Roman Silver Cup – Juxtaposition of Roman homosexuality as both idealized and realistic.

North American Otter Pipe – Emblifies the role of shaman animals and tobacco in North America.

Mexican Ceremonial Ballgame Belt – State sponsored religious-tinged sports.

Chinese Jin Dynasty Scroll Painting – One of the earliest paintings, describes Chinese values, on silk.

Gandhara Seated Buddha – Early example of depicting Buddha in physical form.

Iranian Silver Plate showing Shapur II – Shows the role of Zoroastrianism in the Middle East.

Roman Jesus Mosaic – Depicts Jesus as Christ, combined with Classical imagery, found on the outskirts of the Empire in the UK.

Arabic Gold Coins of Abd Al-Malik – The juxtaposition of two coins minted a year apart define the moment when Islam forbade images of people.

Moche Warrior Pot – Symbolizes the influence of ceramics in South America.

Maya Relief of Bloodletting – Portrays the historic importance of blood as the most valuable substance in the Latin American world.

Abbasid Harem Wall Painting Fragments – Represents the power and isolation of court women worldwide, specifically from the Abbasid empire.

German Lothair Crystal – Illustrates the medieval legal attitudes based on the Bible and artistic craftsmanship of the Carolingian Renaissance.

Sri Lankan Tara Statue – Evokes the dialogue between Buddhism and Hinduism in South Asia.

Chinese Tang Tomb Figures – Display the China’s revitalization and Silk Road influence.

Viking Hoard – Vikings plundered Northern Europe.

Syrian Glass Beaker – Demonstrative of Middle Eastern glasswork and trade connections with Europe.

Japanese Bronze Mirror – Displays symbolism of Japanese court life.

Javanese Borobudur Buddha Head – Represents the extent of Buddhism throughout Asia and an era of advanced architecture in Southeast Asia

African Kilwa Pottery Shards – Evidence of African trade with Asia, and the rise of Swahili East Africa due to Bantu migrations.

Spanish Hebrew Astrolabe – Indication of the religious tolerance and scientific advancement of medieval Muslim Spain.

Nigerian Ife Head – Shows a West African terminus of trade routes and metallurgical brilliance.

Chinese Yuan Vases – Blue and white porcelain, China, is invented during the reign of Kublai Khan, depicting the immersion of Mongols into the Chinese legacy.

Taino Ritual Seat – Spiritual object of the Caribbean peoples wiped out by Columbus.

French Holy Thorn Reliquary – Signifies the return of wealth to Europe, tied to the Church, after the Crusades.

Byzantine Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy – Represents the diminishing role of the Orthodox Church and Byzantine Empire, as well as their iconographic heritage.

Indian Shiva and Parvati Sculpture – Demonstrates the Sub-continent's sexual mores and Hindu spiritualism.

Rapa Nui Moai – Shows the extent of the Polynesian settlers.

Ottoman Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent – Ne plus ultra of Arabic calligraphy, Ottoman strength.

Chinese Ming Banknote – Paper money!

Inca Gold Llama – Incas were dependent upon these critters, and the gold it’s made of.

German artist Durer’s Rhinoceros – Symbolizes the emergence of the Portuguese empire and Northern artistic Renaissance.

Benin Plaque – Depicts the interplay of Portuguese traders and African monarchs.

Aztec Double-Headed Serpent – Signifies the wealth, trade networks, and religious symbols of the Aztecs.

Japanese Porcelain Elephants – Indicates the introduction of porcelain to Japan, and the creation of products for European markets via the Dutch during the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Spanish Pieces of Eight – First global currency, indicator of the wealth of the Spanish empire.

Iranian Shi’a Religious Standard – Emblemic of the Islamic split.

Mughal Miniature – Shows the interplay of Islamic and Hindu religion with the former’s introduction to India.

Javanese Shadow Puppet – Depicts the unique heritage of Hinduism and Islam in Southeast Asia.

Mexican Codex Map – Emblifies the Catholic influence in the New World.

German Reformation Centenary Broadsheet – Printing in Europe, Protestant recruitment poster for Thirty Years War.

Akan Drum – West African drum, found in Virginia, representative of the Atlantic slave trade.

Hawaiian Feathered Helmet – Typifies the sophistication of the Hawaiian civilization prior to European contact.

North American Buckskin Map – Territorial negotiating device used between Native Americans and Europeans, in light of their role in the Seven Years War.

Australian Aboriginal Bark Shield – Indicative of 60,000 years of technological development, inter-Australian trade networks, and European contact – being damaged by James Cook.

English HMS Beagle Chronometer – Artifact of the naval importance to the British Empire, the standardization of time.

English early Victorian Tea Set – Shows the extent of the British empire’s trading and overseas industry, as well as a rising consumer middle class.

Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave – Expresses the influence of Europe after centuries of isolation, wood block techniques.

Sudanese Slit Drum – Representative of the fault line between Saharan Islamic and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as European influences on the region in the ‘scramble for Africa’.

English ‘Votes for Women’ Penny – Exemplifies the Western suffrage movement of the turn of the century.

Russian Revolutionary Plate – Marks the end of the czars and first communist country.

Mozambique Throne of Weapons – Denotes the legacy of post-colonial violence in Africa.

UAE Sharia Credit Card – No money! Plastic! The Middle East’s new wealth.

Chinese Solar Lamp – Sustainable energy for the global poor.

If you want to know which ones I don’t agree with you’ll just have to read the book or find the list yourself.

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