100 Histories of 100 Worlds in one Object

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the Explorative Workshop “100 Histories of 100 World in one Object”, which will take place on December 9th-13th, 2019 at the University of the West Indies – Mona, Kingston (Jamaica). We talked with the conveners, Mirjam Brusius (German Historical Institute London), Subhadra Das and Alice Stevenson (both University College London), about the upcoming workshop.

“A History of the World in 100 Objects”, Allen Lane, 2010.

You are the conveners of the Explorative Workshop “100 Histories of 100 World in one Object”. How did you come up with the idea for the workshop?

Alice: On a Friday evening in June 2018, all three conveners attended one of the Uncomfortable Art Tours in the British Museum. These tours are the initiative of Alice Procter, during which she confronts, directly and without compromise, the colonial origins of the collections. Alice Procter’s narratives weave around and beyond the objects on display, unmasking the silences created by the seemingly benign language of the accompanying labels. As we explored the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum we bemoaned the limitations of exhibitions, but I also recalled the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects as an act of public engagement that had longer format stories centred upon objects, but which was equally subject to the sorts of critiques being raised in the tour. As a microcosm of the ‘universal museum’, the BBC 4 radio programme and accompanying book seemed like an ideal departure point for a very practical way to challenge and fragment the all too neat histories that the British Museum, but also many other museums, present. Things then moved very quickly. On the same day, after the tour, we asked ourselves what an alternative history of these objects might look like. We decided that the nature, format and content of such a history could be generated through open dialogue prioritizing a much more diverse and international set of voices, perspectives and communication styles.

Subhadra: Yes, for a new story to have greater validity, it cannot be told by a single monolithic voice. Particularly, as was the case with Neil MacGregor—former director of the British Museum and one of the founding directors of Germany’s controversial Humboldt Forum—by a single, privileged individual mobilizing the perceived power and influence of a national museum. As such, our project is not intended as a single, monolithic response, but rather as an attempt to create a space for many voices and stories, including critical narratives. Our goal is to widen the frame, and add to and enrich existing contextual information. The stories we encountered in our own research and on the Uncomfortable Art Tour are largely absent in the mainstream and need to be told.

Mirjam: I initially suggested 100 Histories of a World in one Object as a title but then someone recommended Julio Cortázar’s Around the Day in Eighty Worlds to me, itself a chiasmus of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. We agreed that there are also a hundred worlds in one object. We were thrilled and grateful to have received generous funding from the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), Germany, for an explorative workshop. Such a framework allows us to launch the project in Jamaica this month with participants from ‘the Global South’, and to think together about long term plans for distribution, formats and funding options. With historian James Robertson and the University of the West Indies, Mona, Kingston, we found enthusiastic hosts who will enable us to connect with academics, artists, heritage institutions and publishers in Jamaica. This geographical shift to an ‘original context’ beyond ‘the West’ matters greatly to us: The kernel of the British Museum as compiled by Sir Hans Sloane in the 18th century had its origins in Jamaica. The transatlantic slave trade provided the infrastructure that allowed not just Sloane but also his contemporaries at other European institutions to build their collections. James Delbourgo has addressed this important aspect in his new biography of Sloane.

Alice: Indeed, historians are now paying more attention to these aspects, but the question is also: How can they be implemented in mainstream museum narratives so as to reach a wider public? Holding the meeting in the former colonies of the ‘West Indies’ allows us to contextualize the origin story of these collections by revisiting the life biographies that such objects had prior to and during their journey to the European museums in the context of colonial and imperial expansion and power.

View of Port Royal and Kingston Harbour in the Island of Jamaica, Etching, Illustration to the ‘European Magazine’, 1782, British Museum, Prints & Drawings.

Why is it important to enhance MacGregor’s perspective on museum objects, and what would you like to add to the ongoing debates about cultural heritage and museum collections?

Mirjam: A History of the World in 100 Objects was a resounding success with the British public, as well as internationally. It won awards, it reached new audiences, it had a global outlook and it was novel in its presentation of history through the lens of objects. One of its core messages conveyed that there is never one version of history that is ‘handed down to us’. Instead, various versions are compiled that ‘add up to a greater truth about the world’. There were, however, flaws.

Alice: Yes. In fact, it was considered by some as a prime example of exclusion. Several critics felt—ironically so—that the British Museum itself was ‘handing history down’ to us. Colonialism ultimately seemed here to produce not just inequalities of power but also a distorted view of history. Colonial exploration, for example, emerged as a triumphalist and heroic narrative in Western museum culture, leaving little room for alternative interpretation.

Mirjam: Others pointed to a failure to engage with the controversies raging over the return of artefacts to their original peoples, which has become so prominent today. In fact, the project almost completely ignored the provenance of objects. Instead it reinstated the idea of a ‘view from nowhere’ and everywhere at the same time. The museum as a place to see the world; yet without any reflection on how the institution itself obtained and reframed the objects in order to create its own seemingly universal narrative.

Subhadra: I think there is a fundamental need to consider the position and power of where our narratives come from. Ignoring the colonial context is not solely erasure. That erasure continues to downplay and whitewash the histories of historical and colonized subjects in ways that reinforce contemporary social injustice. The argument that the archaeological and art objects in national museums constitute a collective patrimony, that ‘they belong to everyone’, is undermined by these continuing inequalities and injustices. Nearly ten years after the radio programme was broadcast we feel it is time to return to its narrative. And, more importantly, to the nations and communities it left out. These legacies of empire continue today as museum audiences and their staff and infrastructure remain exclusive.

Mirjam: This continuation matters to us. For example, where was—but also where is—indigenous knowledge presented in mainstream museum narratives? Who was at the centre of 100 Objects’ narratives, and who was on their margins? How was knowledge about an object informed by colonial collecting practices; and how is this context presented in museums today? Where are the stories of people who once used these objects and continue to value them today—and possibly want them back? All these questions impact how audiences access and perceive not just artefacts in public life, but history itself.

Alice: What is really striking right now is the enormous public interest in difficult and controversial issues. There seem to be almost daily media stories questioning the right of museums to retain particular objects. Histories of slavery and colonial violence are equally far more visible, all putting pressure on museums to address the more uncomfortable parts of their collections’ histories. This concerns Britain, but equally other European nations. So another obvious departure point for us were the recent heated debates surrounding Berlin’s Humboldt Forum and France’s plans for the repatriation of artefacts as announced by President Macron.

Subhadra: Calls for repatriation have been continuously made by communities across the world. Yet many voices are still not being heard. Projects like ours are necessary to redress the balance of power—and to create spaces for subalterns to speak and be listened to: to heal historic wounds, and build new relationships through apology, dialogue and reciprocity. As concisely stated by Tuck and Yang, decolonisation is not a metaphor. It is not possible to fast forward to a more equitable society by saying it is so. We need to do this work together first.

Alice: A second issue is the globalisation of the idea of the museum. Emerging ‘universal museums’ in the Gulf region, or China’s ‘museums’ boom’, raise important questions about the role of Western museums in shaping some of the practices in these regions. Indian museums, for example, have been looking to the British Museum’s ‘history of the world’ model for articulating ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories.’ Coinciding with the celebrations of 70 years of Indian Independence, this exhibition sought to highlight the strong connections India has shared historically with the rest of the world. The example points not only to the global context in which local narratives are being articulated, but also to the fact that this model can be deployed at a time of vehement nationalist resurgence. The concept, while highly reductive, is clearly seductive. It deserves to be critiqued.

Mirjam: We certainly had doubts, too. Could an entirely new History of the World in 100 Objects be told, and if so, how? Can a history of the world be told through a certain number of objects at all? How can formerly excluded voices be empowered to tell their own histories beyond these frameworks? We are convinced that a strong intervention into museological narratives is necessary and timely. But it also needs new perspectives from a truly international and interdisciplinary group. We want to write new object histories with the ultimate goal of developing new methods while also addressing broader questions that concern the role of museums in the multicultural societies of tomorrow.

What would be an ideal outcome of your workshop? Do you have future plans for your project?

Subhadra: It was clear from the outset that we want 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in one Object to be a continuing project. Our group of authors will consist of researchers, writers and artists but also a small group of museum practitioners, including some from the Humboldt Forum and the British Museum, and we are also seeking a dialogue that will ideally lead to an implementation of our ideas in museum spaces themselves. How can such institutions respond to the demands of those who ask for new narratives and representations that reflect different histories and other senses of belonging and inclusion? How can museums open up their complex collection histories through the objects they display in more inclusive ways? Finally, how could these interventions contribute to diversifying both staff as well as audiences in museums and make institutions more accessible and relevant today?

Alice: Indeed, the workshop is just the beginning! This month we are bringing together 15 scholars from 15 different countries to choose from a selection of the original 100 Objects and experiment with ways to move beyond them in material, archival, and philosophical terms. Over time we will add contributions by new authors but also artists. Some may want to move beyond purely textual formats. We will initially draw on academic approaches, informed by anthropology, that deal with so-called ‘object biographies’. This sort of work has demonstrated the complex ways in which knowledge shifts as it moves across different regions and periods.

Mirjam: Like these works, our project rejects the use of any single simple or linear narrative—those well-worn tropes of origins, discoveries, etc.—and instead seeks to foreground plurality and dynamic flows of ideas, concepts and understandings as they circulate through objects between spaces. Using such frameworks our collaborators might explore how an object’s original function and its later colonial appropriation are integral parts of its biography.

Alice: So far, so academic. But a collection of ‘alternative object histories’ must go beyond established scholarly and curatorial approaches in order to address the stories and people otherwise invisible in archives. Museums have depended for too long on their colonial history told as a continuing narrative of Europe’s involvement in various regions of the world. This narrative is far too one-dimensional. It is perpetuated by the documents in archives that surround these objects, e.g. card catalogues or photographs in the mostly European archives derived from colonial fieldwork. But these are not neutral sources. What is missing are insights into the dynamic emotional and spiritual roles that such objects have played in contemporary and historical lives.

Camels being loaded with crates of artefacts by Egyptian workmen from the British School of Archaeology in Egypt excavation at Kafr Ammar 1912. Courtesy of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

Mirjam: Yes, and not just ‘ethnological objects’ have different lives. As historians have shown, antiquities too were often fully embedded in the domains of contemporary life, public space, working, farming, places of worship, houses and thus subject to multisensory interaction, including the tactile, not just the visual. In historical terms, however, we know almost nothing about community involvement in many of the sites of the ancient past. How could we use oral histories and possibly also fiction as a ‘source’ of memory —in a recent symposium we called these sources counter-archives—to extend object histories in various directions and address the functions they have, or indeed still have? Such functions were erased through their journey into the museum. Here we intend to do more than help fill a research lacuna. Acknowledging these living realities is a strong intervention in the current link between modernity, science and museums that dominates Western thinking. These realities that surround(ed) objects defy the linear narrative that seems inevitably to lead to the establishment of museums. Our stories will advocate a more diverse historical analysis that recognizes cultural difference and pluralism of values.

Subhadra: In other words: developing new methods, new research approaches and new formats for dealing with museum object histories would be another key outcome. And in doing so we hope we can develop a fresh vocabulary that can resonate with a wider range of people and bring new life into ongoing discussions. We also hope that this will form the basis for a more pluralistic narrativising in the future. According to our fundamental principles, this can only be a continuation of a process of foregrounding the work of non-Western scholars and people, and for these to be listened to in Western spaces. To make these voices audible and to reach multiple audiences we will work with more flexible and accessible formats—besides an open-access book, also a blog, social media, and podcasts. This multiple and open format of our ‘new histories’ is intended to remain dynamic and open to additions and narratives that others might want to contribute in future, because, most importantly, we hope to convey the message that there is not one new narrative, but that there are many.


Mirjam Brusius is Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute London since 2017. Her research interests concern the history of collecting and visual culture across Modern Europe and the Middle East. She holds an MA in Art History, Cultural Studies and Musicology (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 2007) and a doctorate in History and Philosophy of Science (University of Cambridge, 2011).

Subhadra Das is historian, history of science communicator, comedian, writer and museum curator at University College London (UCL) Museums & Collections, where she is primary contact for UCL Pathology Collections and the Galton Collection. She has MAs in Archaeology and Museum Studies from UCL. Her main area of research is the history of science and medicine in the 19th and 20th Centuries, specifically the history of scientific racism.

Alice Stevenson is Senior Lecturer in Museum Studies at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (UCL). She specialises in Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egyptian archaeology but has additional research interests in the history and ethics of archaeology, anthropology and museums. Alice has held previous posts as Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and as Researcher in World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum.


Citation: 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in one Object. An Interview with Mirjam Brusius, Subhadra Das and Alice Stevenson, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.12.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/20851.


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