A History of the World in 100 Objects

History of the World in 100 Objects
The Book

The Book

Last week I spent three days at the British Museum in London exploring their History of the World in 100 Objects collection. I had bought the book earlier and showed up on a Monday morning with the intention of going to see each object in the book (preferably in order) and reading the chapter about that object while sitting next to the object. By Wednesday noon I was done with a mindblowing experience behind me.

The collection consists of 100 carefully selected objects, divided into 20 chronological periods. Each period has a theme and contains five geographically dispersed objects. Through this device the collections informs us on wide range of historical topics. We see how we moved from hunter/gatherer societies towards agricultural societies and even towards the information society. We get insight into the migratory patterns of humans from our roots in the African continent to our presence in the Americas (made possible by the last ice age). We are shown the birth of the major religions (and their surprising tolerance for each other at many times). We see the proof of trade patterns between different continents through the use of certain rare materials in objects. We see one of the first pieces of art (a non-functional object) that we’ve found:

Swimming Reindeer

Swimming Reindeer

and the first known depictions of a couple making love. We get an understanding of how people like the Romans, the Aztecs, the Incas and many others lived. We are forced to adjust our thinking about what happened in Africa before the colonisation. We see techniques like pottery or glassblowing develop. We get an idea about the development of activities related to leisure like smoking or sports. We can track how money developed and gained importance. And much more.

What makes it so powerful is how the objects connect us to our shared humanity and to the people who interacted with the object. Most of these objects also have very personal stories to tell, sometimes about their users, occasionally about how they got to the museum. I was incredibly moved by the universal story of a refugee leaving all that they own which obviously happened to the wealthy owners of the Hoxne treasure and I cried thinking about how the Akan African drum was used on a slave ship and then on a plantation in Virginia and how it had traveled to Britain where they first thought it was a native American drum.

In short: those 100 objects and the book are fabulous.

You had better be quick if you want to experience these objects in the same way as I did: 16 of the 100 objects weren’t on show when I was there. Some of them are too brittle to be on display, some were on loan and others were being conserved (a 17th object was replaced by a replica). A few objects are already in a different spot than on the map and others don’t have the signage that is specific to the collection anymore. I hope the British Museum will continue to put an effort into keeping it whole, but it currently doesn’t look like it.

I have one regret: looking back I should probably have listened to the full podcast feed rather than reading the 550 pages of the book. This would have taken a bit longer, but would have allowed me to take a much better look at the objects. Maybe I’ll do that next year.

Spending a lot of time in the museum I couldn’t help but encountering all the other things that are absolutely brilliant about this museum with free entrance: the awe-inspiring white marbled and domed courtyard, all the school children doing their assignments, the free 30-40 minute “eye-opener” tours of the different galleries, the people taking painting lessons or drawing the museum pieces, the “Hands On” tables where you are allowed to touch pieces from the museum with the guidance of an expert, the large groups of Chinese tourists looking at their heritage in the Chinese galleries, the incredible selection of books in their bookstore and the friendly staff. This is probably the best museum in the world. I think that, because of its collection, you can also say that the museum belongs to the whole world.

One final note: I’ve recently read Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy, The Moral Limits of Markets in which he writes about how market thinking is invading all kinds of spheres where it wasn’t before and where it doesn’t really belong (see my review of the book here). One example that Sandel uses is how many things now get commercial names, things like sport arenas. Some of the galleries in the British Museum are also sponsored in this way. This is troubling. They seem to be on a slippery slope (yes, I know I am using a well known fallacious rhetorical device here): Sainsbury has very little to with Africa, Mitsubishi sponsoring the Japanese galleries is already one step further, but with Citi sponsoring a gallery on money I am starting to feel uncomfortable about the influence of sponsorship on the content of the museum. I’d rather pay an entrance fee and be sure I get true editorial independence. Am I being naive here and have museums always had to appease their benefactors?

Corporate Sponsorship

Corporate Sponsorship

The 6 Books That Had the Most Influence on Who I Am Today

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about the 6 books that had the most influence on who we are today. For each book we include a first read section. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Writing about books that you like is one thing, writing about books that supposedly have changed your life is another. The influence of books on one’s life is very indirect. Books might change your beliefs, they can change your disposition, they might even influence your decisions and change the path of your life course. I found it hard to pinpoint books that really did any of this for me. However, I did try. In chronological order of when I first read them:

The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins
Although this is not my favourite Dawkins book (that would be The Selfish Gene), it is the one that got me started on his writing and has instilled in me a love for popular science. This was the first time I read a science book that was written with such clarity and eloquence. Evolution theory is incredibly compelling, as it is capable of answering many questions about who we are today and why we are like this. Dawkins showed me the value of a good metaphor (“the blind watchmaker” is one of them). Many of his metaphors have stayed with me for years. His books are an excellent introduction into the scientific method: nobody is better at explaining how progress is achieved in the scientific enterprise. After reading this book I went on to read Dennett, Hofstadter, Pinker and others. Their books satisfy my personal curiousity, helping me understand how humans work in this world. I still read every book that he publishes, but get increasingly irritated by the presence of his arrogant personality in his writing.
First read: 1993

History of Western Philosophy

History of Western Philosophy

History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
This book is one of the reasons why I studied philosophy (an inspiring teacher being the other).  The full title of the book is History of Western Philosophy: and its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Russell manages to not only give a relatively objective and complete overview of western philosophy, he also infuses the book with historical anecdotes and his personal opinion. This is a big book (800+ pages) and the scope is immense. It is not just philosophy, it is also a history of the ancient Greeks, Christianity and the enlightenment. Here is his definition of philosophy from the introduction:

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or revelation.

What a brilliant writer and thinker! By the way, in the “atheist manifesto” category, I far prefer Russel’s Why I am Not a Christian over Dawkin’s The God Delusion.
First read: 1994

Catch-22

Catch-22

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
No other book has shown the absurdity of war better than Catch-22. I couldn’t stop reading when I first read this and it is one of the only books that I have read twice. I barely ever remember the names and personalities of characters in novels, but Yossarian and Milo Minderbinder (“Everybody has a share”)  are still clear in my mind. As a critique of bureaucracy, Catch-22 is even more compelling than Kafka’s The Trial. Here is the explanation of the title:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. ‘Orr’ was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

This is probably the funniest book I have ever read, I can’t wait to read it again..
First read: 1994

If This Is a Man/The Truce

If This Is a Man/The Truce

If This is A Man/The Truce – Primo Levi
If I was allowed to set the curriculum for all schools in this world and could only put one book on it, this would be it. Levi was an Italian chemist who got deported to Auschwitz and lived to tell the tale. For the rest of his life he struggled with his fate and self-perceived guilt (survival was only possible if you inhibited the gray area of collaboration in the camps). If This is A Man was written right after the war and describes his time in Auschwithz. The Truce is a book about his months long travel home after liberation. Both these books show humanity in its most naked form. I read these books in complete shock. They give an insight into the darker side of the human psyche, while at the same time proving that human dignity can prevail in the harshest of circumstances. This is as close to understanding the human condition as you can get.
First read: 1995

Charley Dancey's Encyclopædia of Ball Juggling

Charley Dancey's Encyclopædia of Ball Juggling

Charlie Dancey’s Encyclopædia of Ball Juggling – Charlie Dancey
I taught myself how to juggle one holiday in Prague. I believe juggling is a very healthy activity. The symmetry of the movement and the required concentration provide for a liberating workout (see The Zen of Juggling and Lessons from the Art of Juggling). Charlie Dancey’s book brought my juggling to the next level. Dancey is an excellent writer, illustrator and juggler. His goal was to provide an encyclopædic overview of all ball juggling tricks. The form of the book is very suitable for jugglers: it is wide enough to stay open by itself. Not only did this book teach me a lot of new tricks (e.g. Mill’s mess, blind juggling, the box, orangutan, juggling with children, eating the apple, etc.), it also gave me a firm understanding of the mathematical underpinnings of juggling (e.g. measuring difficulty, siteswap and ladder notation) and it served as an introduction into the juggling community. I still cannot juggle five balls, but have recently picked up the book again and am sure I will eventually get there with Dancey’s humourus advice!
First read: 1996

Le Ton Beau de Marot

Le Ton Beau de Marot

Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language – Douglas Hofstadter
This book is unlike any other. Hofstadter set out to write a book that could convey his passion for language. While writing the book his wife died of cancer. Parts of the book were turned into an eulogy for his wife, giving the book an emotional depth that it would not have had before. This book had to compete with Metamagical Themas to be included on this list. Metamagical Themas is collection of incredibly diverse essays, including my favourite essay about the nuclear arms race. Le Ton Beau de Marot wins out, because of the unity of its message: language is fascinating and translation is not just about function, but also about form. The core of the book is 72 different translations of a poem by Marot from French into English. Hofstadter comments on each of these and encapsulates them in an exploration of literary language. On the journey we encounter an immense amount of word-play, Eugene Onegin, machine translation and much more. He vigorously argues for giving due attention to the non-semantic aspects of the written word. This is masterful book in both its form and function (or medium and message if you will).
First read: 1998