Travels with Chekhov!
The other day, while walking into the British Museum, I overheard someone say, ‘The British museum, but everything in it’s from everywhere else’.
The Russian writer Chekhov is supposed to have held an open house; people would come by to meet him, ask his advice about medicine and cures (he was a qualified doctor), and artists, musicians and writers would gather and talk. One young writer is reported to have asked Chekhov for the single most important piece of advice he could give. Chekov replied, ‘travel 3rd class’. I think he means that in 3rd class you find real life, where people live and talk and share things together. Small bits of other conversations give you a new ‘view’.
So we were walking into the British Museum full of things from all over the world because the museum has recently launched a new programme or series in conjunction with BBC Radio 4, called A History of the World in 100 Objects. Interesting idea, how could only 100 objects tell the history of the world and all its people?
It’s quite clever really, Neil Macgregor, the director of the museum, has written and recorded a short 15 minute history of each of the 100 pieces. With the help of various other people from David Attenborough to archaeologists from the National History Museum and even Michael Palin from Monty Python. In other words many people have been brought together to talk about and decide which of the Museums huge variety (over 8 million!) of beautiful and important objects should be featured. There are TV programmes you can down load, a treasure hunt in the museum itself, or my favourite, the 15 minute BBC Radio 4 broadcasts about each item.
You can go to the BBC website or the iplayer to listen to the programmes of this special exhibition. It’s special because it’s not like any exhibition you have ever seen before. Normally you go to a museum and wander round the rooms that have been specially designed by a curator; some one who knows all about the art, or objects. But the History of the World in 100 Objects is more like a treasure hunt; you hunt around the museum looking for one or two particular items, they are in their normal locations, no one has moved them to make it easier for you to find them. I’m fascinated by history, people and culture but in most museums there’s too much in one room and I don’t know where to focus, so I want to leave too soon. At this exhibition you get to think about one to two things at a time, learn all about them, think about what makes them special and then come back another day to hunt for something else. There’s a list you can get at information, of the first 30 objects (they haven’t even decided all 100 yet!) and then you get a map and off you go, hunting.
The most interesting idea of the project is that the ‘objects’ have been chosen to show a different view of history than we normal get especially in a Eurocentric country. Only two of the objects are actually from Western Europe, with most of them from central Asia, Africa, America, and so on. This is a new way of approaching the history of people, not through countries or languages but through the development of objects. Whether they were created for practical reasons, like spear heads for hunting, or simply for beauty, like the first images of love, each object gives us a special view into the world.
The first object which caught my attention was the Clovis stone- these are very sharp spear heads that are found though out the continent of America. They are between 10,000 and 4,000 years old and are some of the most sophisticated examples of a type of arrow, used on spears. It’s thought these spears were used for hunting Mammoths. In one of the last Ice Ages when the oceans were frozen into glaciers it was possible to walk to America, from Siberia into Alaska. It’s believed that early hunters followed migrating herds of big game across the ice and so became, maybe, the first people of America. What I like the best about this one, is Michael Palin, talking about the need for people to move around, all through our history we’ve wanted to know what it’s like in other places, we’ve wanted to move around, see what’s over the horizon. Always looking for new exciting things and places, you dear English student, are still doing that now.
So, once again another reason to come to London and study English at UIC, join in one of our General English courses and use the afternoons and weekends to explore the city and visit the wonderful British museum.