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A History of XYZ in ### Objects

by Trevor Jones, Kentucky Historical Society on

History of the World in 100 Objects CoverIn April, Slate’s culture blog Brow Beat showed how the meme started by Neil MacGregor’s excellent book A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010) has expanded to encompass virtually any history topic imaginable. Full post here.

The list includes everything from a book covering the fictional Dr. Who universe in a 100 objects, three virtually identical histories of World War I told in a 100 objects, to the completely bizarre A History of the Future in 100 Objects. (I have no idea what this is, but I want to believe it’s a postmodern book with entirely blank pages and you can draw in your own pictures as you meet the future.)

Regardless of their individual merits, clearly publishers believe the “History in 100 Objects” meme has significant drawing power. I’m thrilled by this. These new books put objects front and center, and acknowledge that artifacts have the power to tell stories that matter.

That’s why I’m such a big fan of A History of the World in 100 Objects and why this meme has such potential power for the history field. MacGregor and the staff of the British Museum explore not only what objects can tell us about the past, but also the present.

This works effectively because MacGregor does not try to fit artifacts in an established historical narrative. He understands that each artifact can tell lots of stories, and each artifact is described in a way to invite conversation and different interpretations.

Too often museums (and I’d wager a lot of these copycat books too) make the mistake of forcing artifacts to symbolize an entire era or idea. Doing this robs them of their power and takes away the personal and gripping stories that can so effectively engage our audiences. It’s past time for history museums to use artifacts as more than illustrations.

I’m not arguing that objects need to be at the core of what each and every museum does. However, if your institution DOES collect objects and believes these collections help accomplish the mission, then I do feel your institution has a responsibility to make good use of this resource.

Collecting is expensive. Acquisition, cataloging, storage and preservation cost significant time and money. Simply put, if your collections are not an asset for your organization, they are a liability.

  • If you’re not doing awesome things with your collections that advance your mission, than why do you collect?
  • If you can accomplish your mission without collections, then why not get rid of them?
  • If that freaks you out, then help your artifacts earn their keep by using them to tell engaging stories that tell a good story.

Take a look at Neil MacGregor’s book. It’s a good place to start. (And I just published an article in the Spring 2014 History News on the meme. See the resource page.)

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