A History of the World in 100 Objects – or – Colonialism still at work

Parthenon Frieze.  Courtesy of the British Museum

The BBC has been running a programme called ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects‘ since the beginning of this year.  From Monday to Friday for 100 days Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum delivers a 15-20 minute podcast on “how we humans over two million years have shaped our world and been shaped by it.”
He tells this story “exclusively through the things that humans have made, all sorts of things, carefully designed, and then, either admired and preserved or used, broken and thrown away.”
He talks about “just 100 objects, from different parts on our journey.  From a cooking pot, to a golden galleon.  From a stoneage tool to a credit card. And in each program [he’s] going to be talking about one object, from the British Museum’s Collection” (Emphasis mine)

 When I first started listening to this podcast, I was impressed by how varied the objects were, both in terms of use and in terms of provenance.  The first object is a stone chopping tool from Tanzania, and subsequent objects include Chinese coins from the 8th century B.C.E. , a maize god from the Mayan empire, an early writing tablet from Mesopotamia and an entrance plaque from ancient Iran.  Of the first 85 objects, only 14 are European in origin, which suggests an attempt by the podcast makers to focus on the actual centers of historical power, not popular views of the importance of the west.  Especially in a time of Islamophobia in the US, and to a lesser degree in the UK, it is refreshing to see so many examples of the “history of the world” drawn from the middle east.  Last week’s podcasts were devoted to the interaction of religions in the seventeenth century, and those that dealt with Suni and Shia Islam and Hinduism emphasized religious tolerance, while those that discussed Christianity emphasized bloody conflict.  So, all in all, this podcast is doing a quite good job of de-centering Europe in the imagination of westerners.

However, as much as the overall project is an admirable one, the fact that all of the objects are drawn from the collections of the British Museum, and are consequently artifacts of colonialism seems to undermine that project.  Supporters of the British Museum – and particularly of the BM’s insistence that the Elgin Parthenon Marbles belong in London, and not in the Acropolis Museum in Greece – say that the BM can better house and protect artifacts than could local museums in Iraq, Iran, North America, Peru, China, Nigeria, or anywhere else (this is explicated in the ‘What is the British Museum’s Position?’ section of the Parthenon Marbles website).  Further, supporters argue, by centralizing these artifacts, the BM is actually doing these places of origin a favour, by exposing their history and culture to tens of thousands of visitors each day, people who might otherwise know nothing about Imperial China or Mughal India etc.   By framing the podcast as “a history of the world” through the collections of the British museum, its makers continue a tradition which suggests that Britons, and in particular Britons associated with institutions of higher learning (the BM, the BL … ) are the natural curators of world history.  As much as the ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ works to privilege non-western narratives, its very context and impetus reinforce colonial naratives about the central importance of the west.  The official mind of imperialism may be long dead, but its ghost seems to be haunting the British Museum.

I don’t want to suggest that this podcast, and associated programmes for school children and museum visitors isn’t a step in the right direction.  However, Friday’s podcast closed with a preview of next week, which is all about the enlightenment and the world.  The teaser line promised an investigation of the”eighteenth-century enlightenment’s desire to know, to map and to control the wider world.”  It seems to me that the ‘History of the World’ project abley continues that desire to know, to map and to control the wider world.

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