New exhibition opening at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra tells the history of two million years in 100 objects

New exhibition opening at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra tells the history of two million years in 100 objects

To tell the history of the world in 100 objects.

It could almost be an extra line in the famous William Blake poem about the grain of sand – a world famous exhibition from the British Museum that shows how whole eras, epochs, episodes, historical events and human stories can be gleaned from a single object. Or, to be more precise, how two million years can be condensed into just 100 items.

The Lewis Chessmen, found on the Isle of Lewis c1150-1175 CE.

The Lewis Chessmen, found on the Isle of Lewis c1150-1175 CE.Credit:British Museum, National Museum of Australia

Take the sarcophagus of Shepenmehyt, the first thing you will see as you enter the exhibition, which is soon to open at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. The elaborate coffin is up first, not because it's the oldest object in the show (it's only about 2600 years old), but because it ably demonstrates just how much information can be extracted from a single item.

The thousands of years of human endeavour since it was created have enabled us to decipher the hieroglyphic text and imagery that tells about Egyptian beliefs of the day concerning the afterlife. We also know much about the woman for whom the coffin was made – her name, her status as "lady of the house" and that she played a musical instrument called the sistrum.

The inner coffin of Shepenmehyt. c600 BCE.

The inner coffin of Shepenmehyt. c600 BCE.Credit:British Museum, National Museum of Australia

And that's just from the outside. Cutting edge CT scanners can now divulge many secrets from within, including detailed images of the bindings and information about the mummification process that was used on the body, not to mention how old the person and possibly how he or she died. "He or she" being the operative phrase: it turns out the body in coffin was once a man, and not the lady Shepenmehyt at all. How the man came to be in a woman's coffin remains as a mystery, as does the presence of a spatula-like implement stuck in the man's brain cavity, perhaps inadvertently during the embalming process. Not one, but two objects that aren't where they should be: the wonders of modern science!

Shepenmehyt's coffin is just one among 100 items that explore the history of humanity, dating right back to an Olduvai stone chopping tool, 1.2-1.4 million years old and an example of the oldest known objects deliberately made by humans. The show skates through coins, pots, statues, drawings, an early writing tablet, a 100-year-old basket from Arnhem Land, cooking implements, amulets for the afterlife, ancient musical instruments, a bronze head of Augustus, a gold Incan llama, a Samurai sword, the Lewis chessmen (made of walrus ivory and immortalised in one of the Harry Potter movies), blue-and-white china, an ivory Christ-as-infant from Goa, a frock coat made of moose skin and porcupine quills, the first solar-powered lamp, a credit card that can be used in accordance with Sharia Law, and an etching by David Hockney.

Listed like this, seemingly at random, the selection might seem arbitrary. But, says NMA director Mathew Trinca, the exhibition – like the original radio program and book that preceded it – is a reminder of what museums are for.

"It reminds us all that the collections of museums are ways by which we come to know the lives of others, and in this case, others that are separated from us by time and space," he says.

Head of Augustus, 27-25 BCE.

Head of Augustus, 27-25 BCE.Credit:British Museum, National Museum of Australia

He is particularly taken by the bronze head of Caesar Augustus, dating to about 27BC, and complete with lifelike glass eyes. This particular bust, of the first Roman emperor, was one of the many official portraits he had distributed across his empire. But this one was carried off as plunder by the army of the Queen of the Kush, who invaded Egypt from Sudan. The head was discovered buried beneath the steps of the Temple to Victory in Kushite capital Meroe – likely placed there deliberately so as to be permanently below the feet of its captors, and therefore a mark of disgrace to the fallen emperor.

"It's a symbol of power, but also the symbol of the fragility of power," Trinca says.

Gold Coin of Croesus About 550 BCE, minted in Lydia (modern Turkey).

Gold Coin of Croesus About 550 BCE, minted in Lydia (modern Turkey).Credit:British Museum, National Museum of Australia

At the other end of the spectrum, his imagination is fired by what looks to be a bog-standard English football jersey – made of cheap polyester and bearing the name of a retired player, Didier Drogba. The catalogue sums up the item's international credentials thus: "This is the 2010 home kit for Chelsea FC, a Russian-owned London club sponsored by the Korean company Samsung. The shirt bears the name of Didier Drogba, an Ivory Coast footballer who grew up in France. However, it is a fake, made in Indonesia and sold in Peru. It has a connection with almost every continent on the planet, highlighting that today football is a truly global phenomenon."

Trinca loves both the symbol of the power of sport, and the fact that it represents both the evolved laws of intellectual property, and the fact that human endeavour has "evaded the requirements of patent and copyright, to be able to make a dollar".

"That's another feature of our time, the fact that in this moment, in the time of globalisation and late industrialism, not only is the spirit of human invention protected through the laws of copyright and patent a feature of our time, but then the human desire to evade that in one's interest is also a feature of the age in which we live. It's a perfect thing," he says.

British Museum curator Belinda Crerar, who has been involved with the show for several years, names a simple Wedgwood tea set as among her favourite pieces in the show – a piece of Victoriana that, for her, sums up what the exhibition is all about.

"The objects on display are not just physical items; they are embodiments of a particular place and time in history, and this tea set demonstrates this particularly well," she says.

"To me, it encapsulates Victorian England and there are so many stories bound up in this one display. The overlying veneer is one of British refinement – what could be more British than afternoon tea? But to fill such a tea set with the necessary ingredients reveals a much more complex, international, and aggressive, side of the Victorian era."

"The tea came from China and the British obsession with importing it led to two wars as well as the establishment of tea plantations in British India and Sri Lanka. The sugar came from plantations in the Americas worked by enslaved Africans."

She also loves the rather incongruous aesthetics of the set – categorically not the finest example of what Wedgewood is famous for.

"It is a lower-range product made of quite basic unglazed stoneware," she says.

"The owners were not members of the British aristocracy. Social mobility is clearly a concern of theirs; they appear to have added silver later to make it look fancier, something that became increasingly possible due to the Industrial Revolution which was happening at this time."

And, finally, the product within – tea, credited with playing a pivotal role in the industrialisation of Britain.

"Previously, tea was an expensive luxury product only accessible to the very wealthiest in society," she says.

"British authorities regulated the price and encouraged tea-drinking among the lower classes – this was not only safer as the boiled water killed many pathogens, but introducing the afternoon tea-break encouraged workers to work longer hours (as well as discouraging them from drinking beer and gin) leading to a more productive work force. This one, middle-class, tea set tells us so much about the age in which it was made."

The very last item in the show is, in fact, outside the realm of the original title – each host museum is allowed to choose 101st item to add to the display. Canberra has chosen to add the inelegantly names CSIRO WLAN Prototype Test Bed – the precursor to modern WiFi technology, developed here in the capital.

"When you think that the show starts with our earliest ancestors fashioning tools from stone in the Olduvai Gorge, and ends with the CSIRO WLAN which really underwrote so much of the way we communicate today…And in between, every key human civilisation, every key epoch, is covered in the course of the show - it's amazing," Trinca says.

The range of objects is important, too, particularly considering some of the latter-day items.

"The David Hockney etching that's included, In the Dull Village, speaks directly to the very changed cultural politics around sex, sexual orientation, gender - that's a feature of the last 50 years of our public life, and the sorts of welcome changes that we've seen in terms of tolerance in our communities for difference is also directly connected to a work like that that's been included in the show," he says.

"So when you think about our age and what might come in time to stand as emblems of our age, I think that these sorts of issues, climate change (the solar-powered lamp), the rise of the Islamic world (the Sharia-approved credit card that doesn't charge interest), our changed sexual politics, all those things are emblematic of the times in which we live."

A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum opens at the National Museum of Australia on September 9 and runs until January 29, 2017.

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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