I’m reviewing the book of this ambitious project from Neil McGregor and the British Museum. Throughout 2010, in 15 minute slots on BBC Radio 4, the director of the British Museum presented objects from the museum that tell the (or, possibly, a) history of humanity. I was aware of the project at the time, but managed to miss the radio show and never quite got round to checking out the website.
The radio shows are still on the BBC website, now in the form of a podcast. The book has a very “podcast” feel to it. Every object is in a short self contained chapter – just the right size for a short train journey to work. The book is clearly meant for this sort of episodic approach to reading, taken in longer doses it could appear a bit disconnected. There is a overarching theme to the book – one of shared humanity and tolerance – but it’s not hammered home. Above all, it is a very pleasant read – even on tough topics like slavery or colonialism, McGregor strikes an optimistic and open tone.
While there are the expected big names (the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Sutton Hoo, the Lewis Chessmen), other items are often obscure. They come from locations around the world (though all have now ended up in London by one route or another). There is a reasonable sense of balance of coverage between cultures and regions around the world (obviously restricted by the collection at the Museum), and the items are loosely themed to show a commonality. Contributions from experts are interesting, and often from an unexpected angle – Grayson Perry drafted in to comment on ancient pottery, Ian Hislop on Lutheran broadsheets.
One disappointment with the book, is that the photos included don’t come close to the descriptions that McGregor gives. He brings these objects to life in three dimensions with all their details and changes, but this is sometimes hard to appreciate without being able to look closer or from different angles. The website does list which objects are currently on display in the museum, and where, so I do have the chance to rectify this. And I am very much looking forward to doing so!