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Book Review


Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects. New York: Viking (2011). Pp. xxix + 736. $45.00 (hardcover); $19.99 (ebook, in most formats).


     If the most typical book of 19th century history asserted that History is the Biography of Great Men, the most representative works of our own era claim that History is the Biography of Great Groceries. Mark Kurlansky's Salt, Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power, and Tom Standage's History of the World in Six Glasses stand out among books that have traced the life histories of coffee, cotton, corn, cod, silk, nutmeg, porcelain, and dozens of other commodities. We may well be past the point at which Walmart, Tesco or Carrefour can stock their condiment-and-spice aisles with nothing but books about condiments and spices.

     Not that this is a bad thing. At the very least, following a commodity over time immerses the reader in, say, the vicissitudes of Indian or Atlantic ocean trade, the transformation of commodity chains, the challenges of state-building, the rise of the modern world-system, or the concept of comparative advantage. And, unlike some genres of historical scholarship, many of these books are staggeringly popular.

     While the era of Comestible History has not yet ended, a new era has already dawned. Its firmament is that of Material Culture, and its rising sun is the Object. Though the tally of such books grows longer by the month, few are as reader-friendly—and as accessible to students—as books about foods, spices, and drugs.

     But there is one glorious exception: Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects.

     MacGregor's success is not, perhaps, surprising. As Director of the British Museum, he is as familiar as any individual can be with the Museum's extraordinary collection, one that now tops eight million items. From these he has selected a hundred objects, each sumptuously photographed (most against a dramatic black matte backdrop) and accompanied by an essay laying out MacGregor's ruminations on its historical and cultural meaning. These vignettes, so accessible to beginning students, will reward advanced readers as well. The book's price is also a pleasant surprise. At a time when hardcover scholarship can top $70 or even $100 dollars, 100 Objects lists at $45 but can be had from most online booksellers for $26 or less.

     The objects themselves range from a nearly two million year old "stone chopping tool" recovered from Olduvai Gorge to a credit card, issued just a decade ago, from the United Arab Emirates. Sandwiched between humanity's earliest tool and one of its most recent are another 98 objects, presented in chronological order, from every region in the world. Not surprisingly, MacGregor gives pride of place to several of the most celebrated of the British Museum's objects. One fine essay assesses the Anglo-Saxon helmet recovered from the 1939 Sutton Hoo dig. Another brings new life to the baked and broken cuneiform tablet whose discovery helped resurrect The Epic of Gilgamesh from its ruined obscurity.

     But for every familiar image, there most readers will discover several that are entirely new. My favorites: a Jomon pot, a Shi'a parade standard, an Australian bark shield, and a brass plaque depicting the Oba of Benin flanked by two retainers and, over his shoulders two Europeans. Some are the discards of everyday life, the knick-knacks and tchatchkas of our ancestors. Most are works of precise and demanding craft, both beautiful and useful.

     100 Objects does not pretend to narrate history. It is a Cabinet of Wonders, not a textbook. Its technique is vignette, perfect for the twenty BBC Radio 4 episodes for which this book, first published in Britain, was a companion volume. Like the radio programs, MacGregor organize his treasures into exhibits of five objects each, loosely tied to a theme: "Inside the Palace: Secrets at Court AD 700–900," for instance, or "Mass Production, Mass Persuasion AD 1780–1914." Although two million year time span may suggest a "Big History" narrative, MacGregor doesn't allude to this or any other narrative approach. Still, his elegant essays do a fine job situating his objects in their historical contexts.

     Anyone who writes a "100 best" list is practically spoiling for a fight; it is, MacGregor admits in his introduction, "mission impossible" (xiii). No listmaker can ever hope to satisfy someone else's choices. He does not satisfy mine. For instance, there is not a full costume in the entire collection (though there are examples of textiles, headwear and royal robes). And what about furniture? There's a Taino ritual seat, at least half a millennium old, and a "Throne of Weapons," a 2001 homage to Mozambique's war dead. A tatami mat or Shaker chair might have as much to say.

     If MacGregor doesn't like suits and sofas, what does he like? Well, he likes money. Numismatists will be thrilled to see their passion rewarded with coins minted by Croesus, Alexander, Kumaragupta I, and Abd al-Malik. A Ming banknote, Spanish pieces of eight, a British penny (defaced by Suffragettes) and, of course, the UAE-issued credit card round out the list.

     The selection also privileges objects that ornamented elites. In part, this reflects the judgment of time: only the most durable materials survive the centuries, a point MacGregor emphasizes in a fine introduction to the relationship between material culture and historical writing. Only elites could ever afford to have goods fashioned in the metals, porcelains, and papyrus that remained intact into our own era. Yet MacGregor's own themes call for the most opulent of objects. He's interested in long-distance trade—and, before the modern era, this usually meant high-value low-bulk cargos. And how can he illustrate a section entitled "Status Symbols 1100-1500" without assembling—well, status symbols? Still, teachers introducing students to social history will find plenty of objects whose first owners were of more modest means.

     MacGregor also prefers small objects to big ones: palm-sized paintings, fist-sized sculptures, tabletop spice boxes and, of course, all those gold coins. Some of the miniatures are stunning: there's a mechanical galleon, its gilded copper and iron rendered with a literalist's exactitude into sail and deck and rigging. Yet I would have appreciated a few more monumental pieces to accompany the Centaur and Lapith looted from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin. (MacGregor acknowledges the painful and perennial controversy that pits London's British Museum against Athens' Parthenon Museum, "a passionate debate in which everyone has a view" (171). Since the Director of the British Museum declines to reveal his own opinion on the issue, we are left to guess).

     A last small criticism: MacGregor hardly alludes to the most important object in the entire British Museum collection: the Museum itself, a many-chambered mollusk that has gradually accreted hundreds of rooms and basements and closets stuffed full of treasures. I can imagine an alternative edition of MacGregor's book; I'd call it The History of the British Museum in 100 Objects. Rather than organizing the objects by the period of their manufacture, this version would introduce them in the order they were acquired. Accompanying essays would fill us in on the ways the British Museum has used, reused, and reimagined each object and its history.

     For a world history instructor, reading 100 Objects is a delight—the more so that, within minutes of reading, it calls forth a dozen of curricular ideas. Once kids have read some or all of MacGregor's little histories, send them off to the British Museum's website (—the collection is completely searchable—and have them devise their own essay-accompanied lists of five or ten objects representative of a particular epoch or region. Or assign teams to visit museums around the world to write the "History of the Ming in 10 Objects" or "History of the Atlantic Plantation Complex in 20 Objects."

     Sticking just with MacGregor's book, student teams might also investigate particular themes. Students researching commerce would find in the index references to free trade; trade in frankincense and myrrh; trade in gold; trade along the incense road; trade with India; the spice trade; trade with Iran; trade in ivory; trade with Japan; trade with revolutionary Russia; trade the Silk Road, the silver trade; the slave trade; the spice trade; the sugar trade; the tobacco trade; trade in turquoise; and trade and the Vikings. A student who followed these references would learn—to take one example –that Roman demand for incense helped make pre-Islamic Yemen one of the wealthiest regions on earth. They would also learn that the rise of Christianity, dramatically reduced the demand for frankincense and myrrh (associated with pagan rituals), thus crippling the Yemeni economy. Not bad for less than an hour of reading.

     100 Objects will best serve students in a pre-1500 World Civilizations class since the book hits its halfway mark around 800 AD. In fact, of the hundred exhibits, only thirty date from the 16th century or later, and just five from 1900. However, even those of us who teach contemporary history will find this book difficult to put down.

Tom Laichas teaches at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California and is senior associate editor of World History Connected. He can be reached at


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