Ten years ago, a friend and I were visiting a museum in New Haven, Conn., when she exclaimed, “This is the kind of stuff you read about in textbooks!”
Recently, many in the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai were equally awestruck during a tour of the British Museum’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”
In Shanghai alone, close to 400,000 people stood in lines averaging four hours long to see the exhibit during its 102-day stay. The Shanghai Museum, to its credit, added evening sessions and kept the museum open seven days a week to accommodate the tremendous public interest. It also offered the display free of charge.
The touring exhibit was created out of a 2010 BBC podcast series of the same title, which included 100 14-minute episodes each featuring an item from the British Museum to illustrate the history of mankind over 2 million years. (And a book accompanying the podcast series has been translated into various languages including Chinese.)
The display in Beijing and Shanghai included artifacts as large as a coffin for an Egyptian woman from 600 B.C. and as small as the gold coins of Croesus, a king who became the symbol of wealth in modern phrases like “as rich as the Croesus.”
The tour also brought to China ancient objects such as early stone tools from Tanzania more than 1 million years ago, as well as modern creations such as the credit card and U.S. election badges. (One, for example, stated “REAGAN ’80” and “LET’S MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” and another said, “GIVE ‘EM HEALTH HILLARY!”)
Only about half of the objects are from the original podcast series (the election badges, for example, are not), partly because some of the artifacts are not fit for the long journey from England to China. An item I really wanted to see after reading the book and listening to the podcasts was two swimming reindeer carved on a mammoth tusk around 13,000 years ago. Among the early showcases of human’s ability to create not just tools but also art, it sounded like an amazing piece.
But Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015 and narrator of the podcast series, told the audience that the Swimming Reindeer was “alarmingly delicate” and “with any sudden shock it could just crumble to dust.” I guess some things have to be left to imagination for now.
Both the Beijing-located National Museum of China and the Shanghai Museum were invited to add an 101th object to the exhibit. Interestingly, Beijing chose the pen used in China’s WTO signing and Shanghai chose the QR code (made of images of the 100 objects in the exhibit), quite reflective of how differently people from the country’s political center and commercial center think. I wonder if Washington, D.C., and New York City were asked to join the same exercise, the same difference would appear.
Unfortunately for those living in Beijing, the National Museum not only charged extra admissions fees for this exhibit but also was not as smart in organization as the Shanghai Museum. It didn’t set a daily limit of number of visitors nor separate visitors to different time slots, as the Shanghai Museum did. So I found the viewing experience in Beijing quite a torture, as I tried to wade through the packed crowd in the room to get a glimpse of the artifacts. So, sadly in some way, I find the podcasts more enjoyable.
The podcasts are also helpful in providing context. They weaved a story of globally connectedness behind the artifacts, which often involved force and plunder. Coins minted in the 16th century from South American silver enriched the invading Spanish and became the first global currency used across Asia, Europe, Africa and, of course, the Americas. An early Victorian tea set illustrated “one of the extraordinary ironies of British national identity” because it was “the result of centuries of global trade and a complex imperial history” — the British waged wars against China to get large quantities of tea, and for a long time American sugar plantations exploiting African slaves provided the sugar served in the tea.
Even without the dark and violent side, artifacts such as broken pieces of pots found on an East African beach told the story of how far goods moved across continents: The blue sherds were from the Middle East, and the green ones, from faraway China.
Perhaps the most uplifting story was a side story of the Flood Tablet. An apprentice at a printing firm near the British Museum regularly visited the museum during his lunchtime and was fascinated by the clay tablets from 700 to 600 B.C. from northern Iraq. He had stared at the text on it long enough that he became the first person to decipher it in 1872, before any scholars could do so!
Today, there are increasingly excellent exhibitions coming to China from around the world. The Louvre more than once sent pieces to the National Museum for display. The British Library not only brought manuscripts and rare copies of books written by authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, it also set up a website in Chinese to promote British literature. The increasing cultural exchange is driven by commercial demands and China’s economic rise, but the noncommercial benefits of such efforts can never be underestimated.
In his personal statement on the University of Pennsylvania website, Arthur Waldron mentioned how a touring exhibit of Chinese paintings from Taipei in 1961 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts became one of two things that set him on his career path. As an 11-year-old boy who wandered into the exhibit, “I was overwhelmed by the new civilization this work revealed, and resolved some day to learn more about it,” he wrote. He went on to study Chinese after college and became a professor of Chinese and East Asian history.
Maybe 30 years from now, an accomplished Chinese scholar will tell the story of how the 100-object exhibit in 2017 sowed the seeds for for his/her success success.
BBC podcast series, “A History of the World” (including audio, transcripts and additional information related to these artifacts: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/