Historical Objects for World Peace!

I’m always looking for new podcasts (suggestions appreciated!).  So many art and history podcasts are stuffy and honestly, kind of boring.  Which is too bad, because art and history are fun!  Exciting!  Most interesting!  So I listened to one this morning that’s been on my Ipod for awhile — the not-so-thrilling sounding  “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”   It was done last year by the director of the British Museum, and I have to admit that I was somewhat fascinated as I listened to the first episode in the series.  The introduction, which took up quite a bit of the 13 minute podcast, was almost more interesting than the actual object of the day, the mummy of Hornedjitef from Thebes, Egypt,  from about 220 BCE.  Before getting to the mummy, the director, Neil MacGregor, talked about people visiting the British Museum (all the objects in the series are there):  “When people come to the museum, they choose their own object and make their own journey around the world and through time.  But I think what they will find is that their own histories quickly intersect with everybody else’s, and when that happens, you no longer have a history of particular people or a nation, but a story of endless connections.”   Yes! The history of the world isn’t a history of individual cultures and civilizations, but rather a history of all of these groups together and how they interacted. This is what I find most interesting about history — who interacted with whom, in what way, in what place, at what time.  What did they share with each other?  How did they influence each other’s lives?

As part of this podcast, MacGregor interviewed Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer.  He asked her what she thought about “the history of the world as one shared story.”  She said that if she could determine a worldwide method of educating children,  she’d “make every child in the world learn a brief history of the entire world focused on the common ground.  It would examine how people perceive their relationship to each other, to the planet, and to the universe, and it would see human history as a kind of ongoing joint project where one lot of people picked up where another lot left off.”   I’m very intrigued by this.  What a great way to promote understanding, maybe even empathy!   If you emphasize the commonalities in world history — the ways that we’re all the same, the things we have in common — in such a way that doesn’t push differences under the rug, but celebrates them, and doesn’t ignore the conflicts that happened throughout history, but discusses them intelligently from all sides, imagine how much more understanding we and our kids would have for other cultures and other ways of life, and for each other and our world as a whole.  This is what’s needed — more of a world view, less us and them, but a universal we.  (Yes, this is a blog about art.  I’m getting a little sidetracked. Or am I??!!)

The rest of the podcast is pretty interesting, too — the British Museum’s specialist on mummies talks about advances in studying mummies in the last twenty years, and he hits on one of my favorite themes (related to my aforementioned “most interesting thing about history”) — what the materials that an object is made of can tell us about contact between cultures at the time.  I so love this — they studied the composition of the bitumen (black  tar-like substance) on some of the mummy cases and determined that it was from the Dead Sea.  Now that’s not that far from Egypt, but things like this can tell us about trade routes and who was in touch with whom.  Like I said, fascinating.

MacGregor’s book on the same subject came out a couple of weeks ago, and it looks good, too.  Still, I plan to take it in 13-14 minute audio chunks.  Talking about art without being able to see it is obviously challenging, and I’m curious to see how that goes.  If you check out the book, though, let me know!

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