Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 programme (and subsequent book) A History of the World in 100 Objects of 2010 was a resounding success with the British public, as well as internationally. Reaching new audiences with the aim of providing a global outlook and presenting history through the lens of objects, one of its core messages conveyed that there is never one version of history that is ‘handed down to us’. Instead, various versions are compiled that ‘add up to a greater truth about the world’.
The argument, however, had its flaws. Providing a colossal platform for the British Museum, A History of the World in 100 Objects was considered by some as a prime example of exclusion. Some critics felt – ironically so – that the British Museum itself was ‘handing history down’ to us. Many saw their view confirmed that colonialism ultimately produced not just inequalities of power but also a distorted view of history – through the stories that are written about nations, peoples and their material culture. Others pointed to a failure to engage with the controversy raging over the return of artefacts in foreign museums to their original peoples. In other words, the project ignored almost completely the provenance of objects and reinstated the idea of a ‘view from nowhere’ and everywhere at the same time: The museum as a place to see the world; yet without any reflection on how the institution itself obtained and reframed the objects in order to create its own (seemingly universal) narrative.
Nearly ten years after the radio programme was broadcast it is time to return to its narrative; and in particular to the formerly subaltern nations it left out. Where was indigenous knowledge presented, who was at the centre of 100 Objects’ narratives and who on their margins? How was knowledge about an object informed by colonial collecting practices; and how is this context presented in museums today? Where are the stories of the objects presented as seen by people who once used them? Museums and the objects they contain play a crucial role in producing concepts of ethnicity, gender, class, and racial identity. But the vestiges of colonialism persist and proliferate in the present through material culture. Colonial exploration is still largely rendered as a triumphalist and heroic narrative in Western museum culture, leaving little room for alternative interpretation. All these questions impact how audiences access and perceive not just artefacts in public life, but history itself.
New public interest in topics hitherto neglected by mainstream academia, media and museums, however — such as the history of slavery — have increased pressure on museums to engage with the more uncomfortable parts of their collection histories. In particular, recent debates surrounding Berlin’s Humboldt Forum and France’s plans for repatriation of artefacts as announced by President Macron have shown that museums in Europe must be prepared to discuss the ‘difficult’ aspects of their collection histories. But while calls for repatriation have been continuously made by communities across the world, many voices are still not being heard. This makes a strong intervention into museological narratives with new approaches and methods, and perspectives from a truly international group of interdisciplinary scholars, artists and curators very timely.
Could an entirely new History of the World in 100 Objects be told, and if so, how? Can a history of the world be told through a certain number of objects at all? The concept as such, a highly reductive and yet at the same time seductive idea used by many since, deserves to be critiqued: Museum practices in global modernity such as the ‘universal museums’ in the Gulf region, or China’s ‘museum’s boom’, raise important questions about the role of the British Museum (and other Western museums) in shaping some of the practices in these regions. Several Indian museums, for example, have been looking toward the British Museum’s ‘history of the world’ model for articulating ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories.’ Coinciding with the celebrations of 70 years of Indian Independence, its aim was to highlight the strong connections India has shared historically with the rest of the world. The example points not only to the global context in which local narratives are being articulated. It also shows that this model can be deployed at a time of vehement nationalist resurgence.
How can formerly excluded voices be empowered to tell their own histories beyond these frameworks? How can museums respond to the demands of those who ask for new narratives and representations that reflect different histories and other senses of belonging and inclusion? How can museums open up their complex collection histories through the objects they display in more inclusive ways? Finally, how could these interventions contribute to diversifying audiences in museums and make institutions more accessible and relevant today? We propose a project that aims at writing new object histories with the ultimate goal of addressing broader questions that concern the role of museums in the multicultural societies of tomorrow.
We seek to approach these questions by writing new narratives of museum objects. We will take a selection of the 100 Objects as a starting point to then move beyond them in material, archival, and philosophical terms. Drawing on approaches in anthropology and history of science that deal with object biographies, the essays will start from the premise that an object’s original function and its later (colonial) appropriation are integral parts of its biography. Knowledge forms were rarely stable across different regions and periods, but, rather, it is exactly in processes of transit and transmission that the forms and contents of knowledge were defined and put to work. The project thus rejects the use of any single teleological narrative — origins, discoveries, etc., and perhaps the seemingly universal narrative of the 100 Objects itself — paying attention instead to plurality and dynamic flows of knowledge that circulated through objects between spaces.
Yet a collection of ‘alternative object histories’ (used here to indicate something deviating from the dominant, not from the ‘normal’) must also go beyond established academic and curatorial approaches in order to address the absence of stories and people that remain invisible in archives. Because museums depend on their colonial past, their history has long been told as a continuing narrative of Europe’s involvement in various regions of the world. This one-dimensional narrative was perpetuated by the ‘two-dimensional’ documents in archives that surround these objects: the history that is told on flat objects such as paper, card catalogues, or the many photographs in the (mostly European colonial) archives derived from the excavations once conducted by museums and universities, on which research was mainly based. Fixed in postcolonial context, imperial vision underlies the documentation and master narratives of many European museums and other institutions. Consequently, their archives are rarely neutral in value.
The scarcity of attempts to illuminate the history of local practices with objects that the public now encounter in museums is also troubling. The majority of scholarship on heritage remains focused on the top-down engineering of cultural heritage. Yet a sole focus on state-controlled or institutionally managed practices does not give credit to engagement with the material past that falls outside disciplinary frameworks, which museums often rely on. Ancient objects, for example, were often fully embedded in the domains of contemporary life, public space, working, farming, places of worship, houses and thus subject to multisensory interaction, including the tactile, not just the visual. In historical terms, however, we know almost nothing about community involvement in many of the sites of the ancient past. Using oral histories and possibly also fiction as a ‘source’ of memory new object histories could be extended in various directions and address the functions objects had (or indeed still have) and how such functions were erased through their journey into the museum.
In doing so, this project will do more than help fill a research lacuna. Our multiformat output (a website with ‘object stories’, podcasts and a book) will present a strong intervention in the current link between modernity, knowledge and museums that dominates the Western narrative. Leaving behind the teleological and linear narrative that always leads to the establishment of institutions such as the museums, it will advocate a diachronic, more diverse historical analysis that recognizes cultural difference and pluralism of values. Seeking new methods, research approaches and formats in dealing with museum object histories, the project hopes to develop a new vocabulary and discourse for an ongoing debate. Finally, our ‘new histories’ will not just be different methodologically and multilingual, but also dynamic and open for additions and narratives that others might want to add in future.’