ALL OUR YESTERDAYS
Museums and art galleries can have strikingly different ways of exhibiting artefacts. In practice the two approaches almost always overlap to some extent, but in their pure form we could characterise them as respectively didactic and aesthetic. The gallery typically shows its works as simply as possible, while the museum displays things surrounded by labels, reconstructions and often annoyingly loud audio and video that make silent examination impossible.
The divergence in exhibition style is in turn explained by the difference between art and other human artefacts. Once again the distinction is not absolute, but broadly art makes meaning: we can look at a picture from centuries ago and understand many of the ideas conveyed; museums, on the other hand, collect a wide range of objects that were not made as vehicles of meaning and which cannot speak for themselves in the same way.
Such a distinction is implicit in The History of the World in 100 Objects, based on the British Museum exhibition — 43 of the original objects have been included, the others replaced by similar but less rare or fragile examples — which was in turn based on a successful series of radio broadcasts in 2010 by Neil McGregor, the museum’s former director (2002-15).
The exhibition’s origins explain why few of the pieces are what we would usually consider works of art, let alone masterpieces, and why even the rare pictures or sculptures are primarily treated as documents of the past rather than as works that speak to us unaided. The head of Augustus, for example, is a notable object, but not a great work of art; it is a fragment remaining from a huge network of propaganda images of the emperor, and one that in this case was preserved thanks to the ignominy of capture and burial by semi-barbarians on the fringes of the empire.
But even the head of Augustus can speak for itself to a certain extent, because it uses a language with which we are all familiar. On the other hand, cuneiform tablets are illegible to all but a handful of specialists, so it is vital to have help in reading them if we are to do more than contemplate them as evidence of the invention of writing about 5000 years ago. Most interesting is a tablet of the Gilgamesh epic with a narrative of the flood myth that antedates the account in Genesis; when this text was published in 1872, it naturally upset those who still took the biblical myth for literal truth.
Among objects with great potential interest but little or no ability to speak for themselves are the gold coins of Croesus, whose name is still proverbial for wealth. They are rudimentary compared with the beautiful coins the Greeks minted over the next couple of centuries, but they are among the first examples of metal currency. And Croesus is the subject of a remarkable collection of stories recorded by Herodotus and repeated as moral exempla for centuries afterwards.
From the same period is a fine Assyrian relief showing two soldiers in the royal guard. Here there is a useful (and fortunately quiet) video explaining the difference between the costume and armaments of the two soldiers: the relief becomes evidence not only of the power of the monarchy but of the nature of a multi-ethnic empire. The Assyrians were succeeded by the neo-Babylonians, in turn conquered by Cyrus, and the Persians would adopt the imperial iconography of these precursor states, as we can see in the ruins of Persepolis.
The exhibition is more or less chronological, following the development of human technology, religious beliefs and social structures from the Stone Age to the present, from hunter-gatherers to the beginning of agriculture, the first cities, the growth of empires, the opening of the world to networks of travel and ex- change, and so on. An effort has evidently been made to include all the peoples of the world: an Aboriginal woven bag is included early in the show, reminding us of the many other artefacts that must once have existed in the remote ages that have left only imperishable remains such as flint axes and spear points.
One of the most fascinating very ancient objects is a limestone fertility goddess figure from the Aegean region but predating the much more refined Cycladic sculpture by some two millennia. The carving is rough, but it was done with stone tools, long predating the working of metals. The most carefully, if not obsessively, carved part of the figure is the vulva, leaving us in no doubt of its symbolic and magical purpose.
Much later, from the beginnings of civilised life, comes perhaps the most beautiful object in the exhibition, the magnificent bull-headed lyre from Ur, found by Leonard Woolley in his excavations in the 1920s. The wooden structure of the lyre had of course rotted after some 5000 years, but Woolley was able to reconstruct it by pouring plaster of Paris into the cavity it had left behind. The decorative elements once mounted on the wooden structure were found loose or crushed, but they could be restored, and the restoration was confirmed by surviving images of such lyres in use in Sumerian times.
Religious images are among the most inter-
From left, Assyrian relief (700-695BC) from Iraq; head of Augustus (27-25BC) from Meroe, Sudan; early writing tablet (3100-3000BC), from Iraq; marble statue of Mithras from Rome (AD100200); gold coins of Croesus (c. 550BC), inset