Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A History of the World in 100 Objects

The British Museum is as tremendous as ever, and I was really happy to catch the special exhibit 'Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite' as it was in its final days. Avant-garde Paris art dealer and print publisher Ambroise Vollard was savvy enough to give Picasso his first exhibition in 1901. Picasso wrote of Vollard that "the most beautiful woman who ever lived never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved [more often] than Vollard -- by Cezanne, Renoir, Roualt, Bonnard, Forain, almost everybody...He had the vanity of a woman, that man." The prints that make up the Vollard Suite were commissioned by Vollard when he asked Picasso to produce 100 etchings between 1930 and 1937 in exchange for some pictures. Vollard died in a car crash before the prints were distributed, and the outbreak of World War II delayed their release further still. Dealer Henri Petiet purchased most of the prints from the Vollard estate, and the set acquired by the British Museum comes directly from the heirs of Petiet and has never been shown in public before and is in pristine condition. It was a wonderful show!

Almost just as good as visiting the museum in person is A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (an edition with a slightly different cover than the one shown above was published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2011). I bought this book last year, before it started to receive some attention here in the States (the article 'A History of New York in 50 Objects' by Sam Roberts, The New York Times, 2 September, 2012 is one of the most recent examples inspired by the book). Based on a BBC Radio 4 series, HOTW is just the kind of book (or project) I am crazy about -- it's very similar in spirit, after all, to my A to Z Miscellany in each of my books. MacGregor notes in his Preface that telling history through things is what museums are for, "and because the British Museum has for over 250 years been collecting things from all round the globe, it is not a bad place to start if you want to use objects to tell a history of the world." He also wisely notes that if the history you want to tell doesn't unduly favor one part of humanity, you can't use texts alone because "only some of the world has ever had texts, while most of the world, for most of the time, has not. Writing is one of humanity's later achievements, and until fairly recently even many literate societies recorded their concerns and aspirations not only in writing but in things."

While I do think it's optimal to read this book through as is, one can open it up to any page and easily get lost for an hour. Every single object presented is incredibly fascinating, whether it's an Olduvai stone chopping tool, the standard of Ur, a gold coin of Croesus minted in western Turkey, a Hebrew astrolabe probably from Spain, a Mexican codex map, a Russian Revolutionary plate, or a credit card issued in the United Arab Emirates in 2009 (since they were introduced in the 1950s, credit cards have become a major part of modern life). And to think that all of these are in the permanent collection of the BM is a reminder that this is one of the world's most stellar museums. (And in case you're wondering, the Parthenon sculpture of Centaur and Lapith -- better known as the Elgin Marbles -- is included in these 100 objects; MacGregor doesn't share his view on the matter of whether the Marbles should be returned to Greece or remain in London, but as readers of my book on Athens, the Peloponnese, and the Aegean Islands know, I believe the time has come for them to be on display in Athens.)

Neil MacGregor has been Director of the BM since 2002, and he was previously Director of the National Gallery in London. His book is a masterpiece, and it would also make a great holiday gift.

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