Originally reviewed 10th October 2012
The people who give this book low ratings and complain of being bored, and of now knowing tons of useless facts, just stagger me. I almost wish I’d caught the original radio program — I must look for similar things to listen to while I’m crocheting — because I find all the information intriguing and worth keeping in my head (if not exactly useful in the sense of practical). To me museums have always been magical places, and though the provenance of all the items in the British Museum troubles me, the range of them and the accessibility of them makes me very happy. I did go to the British Museum once, and was only allowed to stay there a few hours — this reaaaally makes me want to go back.
It’s inevitably framed by a fairly Western way of looking at the world, because though the objects in the museum which are used to make this history are from all over the world, they were obtained — bought, stolen, traded, permanently borrowed, and basically not always freely given — by British people and for a British audience. The book does acknowledge that, though, and the series did its best to celebrate all sorts of cultures, including those long-eclipsed by colonialism. It discusses the damage done by colonialism to now vanished cultures as part of the history some of these objects embody.
It’s a lovely book, well laid out in chapters and sections, with black and white photographs of each object to open the chapter about it, and colour inserts of selected objects. Honestly, I wish there were full colour photos of all the objects, but that would have been prohibitively expensive to print, I imagine. I doubt everyone, or even most people, would want to read this book the way I did, cover to cover in one go, but I actually found that I couldn’t put it down.
[Note in 2016: I went back, with my partner, in November 2015. It was as wonderful as expected.]