A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor
You know the Seven Wonders of the World game? If you were selecting the Seven Wonders of the Ancient/Modern/Natural world which would they be and why? This is that game writ large. The Earth is about to be destroyed by the Vogons’ new hyperspace bypass and you must choose 100 objects to represent the entire history of the human species to take with you on the last evacuation ship. What do you choose, and why? Your selection must be made from the British Museum collection. You can’t choose the Bardot or the Louvre or the Met or even the British Museum of Natural History and you can’t mix and match, you must select from the main collection of the British Museum. 100 objects to represent humanity to its future self and to the universe. How are you going to choose?
Traveling forwards through two million years of history each object represents the extent and sophistication of the society that created it. The first stone axes were made and used by one individual, with little need for supporting infrastructure or complex social order. The credit card requires immense scientific and technological expertise to manufacture and an incredible global infrastructure of computers, networks and software to link the card to the banks and shops. Even then it’d be useless without and an astonishingly sophisticated system of currency and financial exchanges to operate within. These 100 objects were chosen to tell of the long slow rise of human civilization.
Each chapter has a picture of the object, a description, the story of when, how and why it was made, the historical context in which it sat and a paragraph or two by a modern expert or pundit on the significance they believe it has. A few overall themes run through the selection. Objects are chosen to represent every part of the globe and mostly fall into one of five categories: physical tools/weapons, financial tools, ceremonial/political/religious items, transport, and the development of the four r’s, writing, reading, mathematics and science.
It’s a good bet that a hundred years ago the choices would have been very different and that in a hundred years time the choice, again, would be very different. A lot can be learned about today’s global culture from the choices made and more from the paragraphs from the experts, interpreting the objects’ importance in context of today’s society. It’s a source book for the future to interpret the belief systems of the early 21st century.
I’d like this to be the first book of a series. Book 2 should be ‘Objects rejected from the shortlist’ and include the reasons they didn’t make it into the first 100. That’d be fascinating reading too.