A history of the world in 100 objects from the British Museum. National Museum of Australia. Until January 29, 2017.
John Keats wrote his Ode on a Grecian Urn almost two centuries ago, where the poet meditates on a painted Grecian vase that unlocks an ancient civilisation that, because of this object, remains for us forever alive and distantly accessible. The concluding verse of the ode is one of the most famous in the English language "'beauty is truth, truth beauty' – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Keats had seen an engraving of the "Sosibios Vase", a Neo-Attic marble volute krater, which had been signed by the Rome-based Athenian sculptor Sosibios and had belonged to Louis XIV before it entered the collection of the Louvre.
The former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, had the idea to select 100 objects from the museum's vast collection and through them tell a history of the world. If for Keats an object served as an excuse for a personal romantic daydream, the curators at the museum have interrogated the selected objects with greater empirical rigour, although arguably the values and prejudices of the British system still prevail.
The only Australian object from the British Museum is a 20th century Aboriginal pandanus fibre basket, which is included as object No.5, in the section on the beginnings, before civilisation and the cities appeared. It has been selected because similar baskets are depicted in Arnhem Land rock art dating back more than 20,000 years. This is the familiar Stone Age people surviving into the present times mythology with which many of us feel uncomfortable. In this exhibition, the millennium of Byzantine civilisation is represented by a late and fairly mediocre Cretan painted icon, a disappointing choice considering the incredible strength of the museum's collection in this area. Communism, which people may consider had some sort of impact on the history of the world, is marked by a Russian revolutionary ceramic plate from 1919. The selection is idiosyncratic and, in many areas, we are not seeing the great gems in the British Museum collection.
While one does not anticipate that the Elgin Marbles would be made available for loan to Australia, although I did notice them on loan to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg last year, the show that has come to Australia has a handful of outstanding objects plus many representative examples. Key items from the original 100 objects show, including the Rosetta Stone, the Warren Cup, the Parthenon Centaur and Lapith, Hokusai's The Great Wave and the Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent, have not made it to Australia.
Showstoppers at the museum in Canberra include an Assyrian relief from Nineveh (although not one of the lion hunt); the granite statue of Ramesses II; an exceptionally fine bronze head of Augustus with inlaid glass eyes; an excellent marble bust of Sophocles; the marble Mithras statue; one of the superb Sasanian silver plates – the one of the king hunting; an Early Christian sarcophagus with Jonah and the whale from the 3rd century; the Irish Bell Shrine of St Conall Cael; a selection of six of the Lewis Chessmen (out of the 78 chess pieces in the British Museum) and a gorgeous Benin brass plaque depicting Oba with Europeans.
I have little doubt that a different person would end up with a slightly different list of highlights. What is interesting is not only the selection of objects, but also the construct that the British Museum imposes on the history of the world. About a century ago, the visionary thinker H.G. Wells published his immensely popular The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man, which sold more than 2 million copies and was translated into many languages. As a child, I found it an inspirational read, a book in which one great mind tried to make sense of the path taken by humankind, starting with a quest for a common purpose through to the development of a free intelligence and the rejection of theories of racial or cultural superiority. The British Museum show and its examination of material objects from stone tools and stone axe heads through to credit cards and solar-powered lights, charts a history of progress through technological change. The other interwoven theme is a sense of awe for the diversity and creativity of "things" that people have made throughout history for all sorts of different purposes. The selected objects appear like snapshots of various artefacts that humans have made over the millennia.
Although one can applaud the exhibition for breaking away from the mould of "treasures" shows, where there is simply a grab bag of pretty objects brought together to entertain and woo an audience, I feel that in this encyclopaedic diversity in the 100 selected objects, there is a failure to create a greater narrative. Possibly a tighter focus could lead to a more intellectually challenging exhibition. As it stands, the exhibition will be wildly popular in Canberra and in Perth, to where it will travel in February next year, especially with general audiences who have never visited the British Museum in London.