When visiting a historical exhibition, you can expect the usual awe-inspiring and fascinating items from specific eras or cultures. However, “A History of the World in 100 Objects” has broken the traditional mould by utilising items not only of historical significance, but also those that have their place in modern society.
Providing a timeline of seemingly unrelated items in a complex, richly woven story of humanity across cultures and periods, the exhibition brings to life the theory of “degrees of separation” through items ranging from a Chinese Jade Hair Ornament (dated c 3,500BC) to a lifelike cast bronze hand from Yemen that was made between 300 and 100BC to a bird-shaped pestle from Papua New Guinea (dated 6000-2000BC), and much more. Organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) in collaboration with the British Museum, the exhibition is running until August 1 in the Manarat Al Saadiyat. It is the latest in a series of major public events in the lead-up to the opening of the Zayed National Museum in 2016.
“The opening was brilliant — I’m so pleased that there’s a good level of interest in the exhibition. It was a year in the making and I hope visitors will come away with the understanding that globalisation isn’t a modern thing — it’s been happening across our history in one way or another,” said Becky Allen, an exhibition curator at the British Museum. She spearheaded all aspects of the exhibition, enlisting help of 90 other curators across the museum’s various departments, and carefully selecting the items that are on display.
“Abu Dhabi, geographical speaking, is a perfect location for the ‘100 Objects’ display because the Gulf is mentioned quite often in various forms throughout the centuries, showing that it is a hub for human connectivity,” she added.
Other pieces of historical significance include an Olduvai stone chopping tool from early human ancestors in the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, the famous Royal Game of Ur, found in a royal cemetery in southern Iraq and estimated to be around 4,500 years old, and The Flood Tablet from Mesopotamia. Dated to 600BC, the tablet is from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal and part of the epic of Gilgamesh.
“The tablet is important because not only does it reveal an early literary writing style, but this particular fragment tells a similar story to that of Noah and the flood, even though it predates scriptural accounts by about 400 years ... which shows how there are certain elements that are common in our storytelling traditions, no matter where and when they are being told,” Allen said.
When asked by Weekend Review which of the displayed pieces have a special place in her heart, Allen at first attempted to provide a diplomatic answer but then revealed her favourite — a Japanese samurai sword and its intricate sheath, which is from the 1800s.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the samurai culture ... it has a rich culture that’s unique, which I think is what draws people to it ... also, the swords show just what master craftsmen the sword smiths were. Did you know that they created them in the dead of night, with just the light from the melted steel to guide them, so they could protect their forging secrets? Amazing!” Allen said.
In addition to the displayed items — none of which will be a part of the Zayed National Museum’s collection — “A History of the World in 100 Objects” features a varied public programme that includes lectures, tours and interactive workshops during its 100-day run. The first lecture, “Unlocking Objects”, was given by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum on April 22.
“It was a rather thought-provoking lecture. Neil took the audience on a tour of the transformation of money and its uses across different time periods starting from 500BC until today. He showed how it has always been a uniting factor and the way it has changed in modern times with the creation of things such as credit cards, which utilise ‘invisible money’ in the place of paper money and coins to allow us to purchase things,” Allen said. That is reflected in the exhibition’s object No 98 — a Sharia-compliant gold credit card from HSBC.
Allen will also be presenting a lecture — entitled “Life After Death”, on June 4, which explores how cultures around the world address death, such as the creation of remarkable funerary art from Africa and beyond.
“I can’t wait to come back to Abu Dhabi. I’ve been home for a few days now and I already miss it, and the exhibition. I’m quite excited about my lecture. Other than funerary art, I’m going to discuss how objects have surprised historians, where they get transformed into something else that gives them a new lease on life. For example, there is a sculpture called ‘Mother’ from Mozambique that is a woman holding a handbag, which is made up of pieces of machine guns. I think it’s amazing how something optimistic could be made from something that causes so much violence and pain,” Allen said.
She also noted that the concept of the exhibition, which represents more than two million years of history in a structured, guided timeline, actually stemmed from a 2010 BBC radio series of the same name. Becky and her team tried to remain as true to the programme as possible. However, some items had to be replaced, such as the colossal bust of Ramses II, which weighs more than seven tonnes.
“It was a popular 100-episode programme that we complemented by offering visitors a map to discover for themselves where each piece was in the museum and how they connected to each other. However, there were some things that we couldn’t bring with us, such as a wooden panel depicting a part of the central Asian story of the Silk Princess. It’s so delicate that we don’t even display it in the museum. It was replaced with little clay camels found along the Silk Road so we could remain true to that era,” Allen said.
As for other items that are also of a delicate nature, such as the 1,600-year-old “The Empress” — an ancient Roman pepper pot that is 8 centimetres tall — considerable care was taken to ensure that they remain unscathed during their arduous journey from London to Abu Dhabi.
“The empress is silver-gilt, so we have to make sure it doesn’t get tarnished. This and other similar items get packed in special containers that includes absorbent material such as ProSorb to control the humidity. Also, once we arrived, we placed the pieces in special airtight boxes with highly-sensitive sensors that alert us if any changes are detected,” Allen explained.
If you are among those who don’t feel connected to centuries-old artefacts beyond a shallow admiration for their remaining intact through the centuries, then one item may just be the perfect illustration of our shared connection. It is object No 99 — a Didier Drogba shirt.
“I really love explaining this because it illustrates the exhibition’s theme perfectly. It is a Chelsea Football Club shirt, which is a Russian-owned club in London. Didier grew up in the Ivory Coast and after London, he went on to play in China and then Turkey. Also, the sponsor of the club is Samsung, a Korean company and finally, the shirt is a counterfeit, made in Indonesia and sold in Peru,” Allen said.
Just as visitors reach the end of their journey through human history, they come across a prototype foot-controlled car designed by Reem Al Marzouqi, a student from the UAE University in Al Ain, a fitting conclusion to this in-depth exhibition.
“I think it’s perfect because it shows that our history is never-ending, there’s always something to be created and discovered. In this case, it is a brilliant example of how technology can help people live better lives ... young people are the inventors of the future. I can’t wait to see how our collective stories will change, even in the several years from now,” Allen said.
Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.
“A History of the World in 100 Objects” is open from 9am - 8pm. For further information, please visit www.saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae or call 02-657 5800.