Wednesday 17 July 2013

All That Stuff

I've just finished the book of the podcast:  A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor director of the British Museum which was the brainchild of Mark Damazer, Controller of BBC Radio 4.  Its first incarnation was as 20 x 5 (Mon-Fri) fifteen minute programmes (podcasts here) presented through 2010 by MacGregor in soft OxBridge tones on Radio 4.  The series wrapped up with Object 100: a solar powered lamp for enlightening the third world by extending the reading day.  The original specification stated that all the Objects should be in the possession of the BM and they should epitomise and represent all human history (from 2 mya to yesterday) and all culture,  not just what OxBridge values.  Thus there is no mention of a truly staggering technological marvel, the Antikythera Mechanism because that's in Athens.  But as a consolation prize, Object 62 is a Hebrew Astrolabe made in Spain in 1350, which is not so old but in far better nick than corroded puzzle the Greeks have.  One of the brilliant aspects of the series is that it was broadcast on The Wireless, so you can't see the thing under discussion but must have it described.  The discipline of description forces the presenter to think about  the key attributes and this enhances the explanatory power. It also forces the listener to engage with his ears and imagination and his own experience.

This is clearly an Arts Block project but salutary reading (or better listening) for scientists because it shows that science is not the only magisterium that does research and that you can build up a surprisingly coherent picture of a whole culture from a handful of artifacts - if you know your material and the literature about it and can think clearly and creatively (and not disappear into some fantasy of preconceptions).  Previously, I've made some snitty comments [W] [B] about Arts Block educated broadcasters and their wilful ignorance of science but acknowledge that the Arts are probably better than Science in guiding us how to live.  HoW100 is pretty good at showing that cultures other than our own have come up with different blueprints for civilised life that are at least as good as our own.
I'll chid the book a little for bigging up them foreign-johnnies while making disparaging comparisons about what The West has brought to the table.  This is possibly an unintended consequence of MacGregor (and the other BM chaps who decided what should go on the list) being plug-ignorant about science and technology which is probably where The West has contributed most.  For example, saying "we all have Africa in our DNA" might be a synecdoche or a metaphor to MacGregor - as an Artsblocista he'd know which if either - but for me DNA is a technical term for the hereditary material and Africa is a continent so the statement is at best woolly. Then again it may be a limitation explicit in the terms of engagement: all  the Sci & Tech objects are in Kensington in the Science Museum or the BMNH. Awaiting their own show?  After all, it didn't take long for the Irish Times and Fintan O'Toole to come up with their wholly derivative me-too collection which is, unfortunately for me (in Ireland/today) the top Google hit for "100 Objects":  A History of Ireland in 100 Objects . Before you go there just have a plunge as to what Fintan and his cronies came up with. I'm guessing: Cuchulainn's bowl of Winalot, the head of Padraig Pearse as a baby, and a black protestant heart (as a metaphor for the Irish Times y'know).
Notwithstanding my expensive education, 90% of the Objects (in the original BM collection, I'll come to the History of Bhutan in 100 Objects in a much later post) were completely new to me and I learned something new about the few I'd heard of.  For example, the Lewis Chessmen (Object 61) are not a complete set but 78 mixed pieces.  There's a wonderful story about how a ceremonial  jade axe (Object 14) found near Canterbury was transported there 6000 years ago (about the time our Ringstone was being carved).  The most extraordinary element of the tale is that scientific archaeologists Pierre and Anne-Marie Pétrequin were able to locate the source for the axe to a particular boulder 2000m up in the Italian Appenines and show that another axe found in Dorset was a chip off the same block!  Object 92 - a Victorian Wedgwood teapot/sugar-bowl/milk-jug set - yields a clatter of fascinating connexions.  Tea, silver and opium formed a triangular trade not dissimilar to the classic cotton-goods, slaves, sugar cycle across the Atlantic which is better covered in history books.  Tea was promoted as an alternative to gin to increase the productivity of the laboring classes and spooning sugar into tea consumed the the key product of the British West Indies almost as efficiently as converting it to rum.

I'll say one last thing about bias and invisible certainties.  In the Extra Features of the DVD of Dr Zhivago (1965) is an interview with the director David Lean.  Looking back from 40 years on, he acknowledges that they'd blown it on Julie Christie's hair.  They spent millions recreating authentic1917 Moscow streets, researching late-Tsarist fashions down to the last boot-button, finding a genuine 19th century Russian steam train . . . and nobody (neither the director, nor the continuity girl, nor the key grip, nor the best boy, nor the Miss-Christie's-gowns-by) noticed that Lara's hair was pure 1960s Carnaby Street.

HoW100 fails this test too.  A stated desire to be inclusive and giving parity of esteem to an African drum (Object 86)  a medieval French reliquary (Object 66); and a Chinese banknote (Object 72), is all well and good.  These objects represent important elements of every person's life - music, religion, money.  A handful of the objects speak of another key aspect of the human condition - sex.  IF the Kinsey Report's suggestion that 10% of us are "more or less exclusively homosexual" is more or less true and IF HoW100 is attempting to cover all human culture and history without bias and IF they decide that 4 or 5 objects is enough to cover sex, THEN to the nearest whole number there should be NO representation of the love that dare not speak its name, whereas there are two (a 4x excess - not significant because of tiny numbers): a hot Roman goblet (Object 36) and a post-hot Hockney etching (Object 97).

Ah well, it's not about the numbers.  The book is richly informative and interesting. Worth a gander, boffins.

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