History Books and Beyond
In the 1850s when the British ruled India they found a stone seal near Harappa; it had some curious carvings and was apparently very old. By 1906, three more of these seals arrived at the British Museum and nobody was sure what exactly they were for or when they’d been made. By this time, they had caught the attention of the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India and he ordered an excavation of the ruins at Harappa. What the British found there led to the rewriting of world history. It is curiously intertwined this world history: the past with the present, the colonies with the colonizer and the objects with their origins. One can also see this demonstrated in the object of the Rosetta stone, one of the most famous discoveries made and one which cannot be separated from the Egyptians, whose secrets it unlocked; the Greeks, who had it made; the French, who found it; or the British, who won it from the French in one of their almost endless colonial wars and then had this victory engraved on the stone itself. This colonial prize too now resides at the British Museum, where it is one of the most popular items on display, along with the mummies.
History is always a contested space and telling it in any new or old way is sure to fray some nerves, and attempting to tell a history of the entire world is a gargantuan challenge of its own kind. And that is exactly what Neil MacGregor tries to do in his book, A History of the World in 100 Objects. What was originally a radio show for the BBC, the project was undertaken when he was the director of the British Museum and is an eclectic history told through a myriad different objects from all around the world, telling a history which the author hopes does not privilege any one region or form over another. It is a wonderful book, and even if you get an attack of postcolonial angst at having objects from your respective history being appropriated by a Western institution, at least it forces you to actually think about your relationship with history both in general and particular.
In a similar vein, a book published recently attempts to write history a little differently too. Giles Milton’s Fascinating Footnotes from History takes various anecdotes from history and puts them into a book that is a patchwork of nuance and historical implications. There are certain blank spaces in historical narratives that always make people wonder about the “real story” of what happened. Milton tries to fill those gaps by taking incidents that would form “footnotes” in different books on history and putting them together in a book that is the tequila-shots-equivalent of history. It is history told from the bottom of the page, looking up at greater events through the prism of anecdotes ranging from double survival of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to mountaineering accidents that raise questions about who really conquered Mount Everest first. History as a truthful and exciting gossip column is still history and making it fun and diverse like this book does makes it appealing for a much larger audience.
Wouldn’t you like to be a part of that audience?
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