Object lessons: 100 examples of the stuff history was made on

Rebecca Onion on the pros and cons of scholarship as listicle

October 23, 2014

Since the success of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, the BBC Radio 4 series that aired in 2010 and was published in book form that same year, major publishers and museum directors around the world have seized upon the “history of X in Y objects” formula with alacrity. Drawing on the expertise of historians, an impressive number of books and exhibitions along the same “objects” line have been commissioned in the past four years, on subjects as diverse as the American Civil War, birdwatching and The Beatles, football and the future, Shakespeare’s milieu and Dr Who.

This past year has seen the publication of two different books entitled The First World War in 100 Objects, and a third entitled A History of The First World War in 100 Objects; while the three publishers involved are doubtless annoyed by the concept’s ubiquity, why should other people who care about public uses of history object? Surely until the idea loses its glamour we should be happy to reap the increase in historical fascination that these projects promise. Yet the concept subtly irks some scholars of material culture, offering as it does a reductive, detheorised vision of what it means to look at an object. Moreover, in its appealing completism, the “objects” books make outmoded promises of epistemological certainty.

While the humanities continue to destabilise, problematise and otherwise complicate texts and narratives, objects seem to promise access to some kind of truth. Or, as design historian Juliette Kristensen, visiting lecturer in the department of design at Goldsmiths, University of London, puts it, “The very concrete nature of things seems to offer more authentic material for researchers to work with.” The sense is that objects tell “stories”, if you are willing to listen hard enough to hear them. This is in stark contrast to the postmodern understanding of the historical archive as necessarily incomplete and sometimes beyond our understanding.

There is that mystical sense of connection that objects provoke – a feeling that these books use very much to their advantage. Sam Roberts, New York Times journalist and author of A History of New York in 101 Objects, recently observed that we like objects because they retain a “mesmerizing and metamorphic power”, carrying an essence of history with them through the years. The problem lies in accepting such “power” at face value, without doing the same thing to an object that we would do to a text: asking who made it, where it’s been, why it survived for us to see, and why we feel the way that we do about it.

As practitioners of material culture learn to recognise, there is a big difference between using an object as an illustration of a concept or story and interrogating the object as it is. While she loves the fact that the “objects” format is an argument for the “importance of maintaining museum collections of material things in an increasingly virtual world”, Sarah Anne Carter, curator and director of research at the Chipstone Foundation in Wisconsin, asks whether the “objects” books “use objects to develop the historical concepts attached to them”. Or, she wonders, “is the object simply a vessel for already-developed ideas?” Item 57 in The First World War in 100 Objects by Peter Doyle proves this point. A Tyneside Scottish cap illustrates three pages of text about Scottish volunteers’ doings in the war, of which only a few lines are dedicated to the cap itself: its materials, its provenance, its relationship to other objects like it, its recorded significance for the people who wore it.

Carter has co-written a book called Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects, due to be published in December, that looks not to teach a set period of history “through objects”, but rather to impart a set of strategies to help readers regard their own junk drawers, attics and supermarket aisles with a critical eye. Do objects-based books, she asks, “empower readers to discover history and meaning in the world around them and give them tools that allow them to do that?”. MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects can’t be faulted in this regard; its approach models critical ways of looking at an object, taking readers through the layers of history that make up its provenance and survival, and explaining his own selection criteria. One cannot say the same about many other books adopting the format.

Then there is the problem of invisible curation, with the selecting hand hidden in the glamour of the objects and the hard limit of the number. Inevitably, at the beginning of each book, the person responsible will apologise, issuing a mea culpa for all the potential objects that there just wasn’t space to include. But this caveat gets lost in the fascination with the objects themselves, with the end result looking like a complete set, no matter how much the curator pre-emptively wrings her hands.

The “objects” idea has its roots in other now-outmoded book concepts with aspirations to completism. The most famous of these is the encyclo-pedia, an elite Enlightenment project popularised in the 19th century as cheaper editions proliferated. The encyclopedia had pretensions to being the only reservoir of facts a household would need in order to understand the world. Rather than numbering objects, encyclopedias promised “a history of the world from A to Z”. Ambitious children were advised to read a bit of their encyclopedias every night if they hoped to succeed in life.

But the internet killed the encyclopedia so dead that the only use for our old sets is as source material for fine artists making collages or book art. Many have ended up in library book sales or landfill sites. The constantly shifting corpus of knowledge available on the web is more flexible and more comprehensive than even the most quickly updated encyclopedia. This is convenient, but also overwhelming, requiring discernment and provoking a feeling of being drowned under the sheer quantity of material. The reader often loses hours to the internet’s rabbit holes, wandering from source to source, indulging curiosity but never quite feeling “done” with a topic.

The new style of books aren’t reference books, but they hold the promise of some of the same authoritative curation and completism that the encyclopedia once offered. New titles using the basic template “history of X in Y” have substituted specific types of objects (The History of Photography in 50 Cameras), documents (A History of the World in Twelve Maps) or historical episodes (A History of War in 100 Battles) for the standard group of things. With this drift, the sub-genre moves away from material culture and gets closer to history as listicle.

Perhaps we historians should be easier on readers who want a finite, simplified way of understanding complicated topics. If there’s a lesson for us in the “objects” craze, it’s that there’s a hunger for connection with the things of history. It’s up to authors and curators to help readers see historical objects as opportunities for inquiry, rather than as answers to all of our questions.

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