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The Stories Our Objects Tell About Us
A new book suggests that, awfully enough, my husband might be onto something. Can objects tell a story, or even the history of the world? This is the conceit behind the British bestseller called, accurately enough, A History of the World in 100 Objects, now out in the United States. The book's author, Neil MacGregor, is the director of the British Museum (where all the objects in the book currently live), and he recently spoke to Jeffery Brown at PBS News Hour about the selection of objects and what stories they tell, One of the objects they discussed was one of the oldest tools in existence, a 2-million-year-old stone chipped into a sharp edge that MacGregor said is the "kind of tool that lets us all leave Africa and live everywhere, because this lets you strip the meat off the animals to get more protein, break the bones to get the marrow...This is what lets us...become us."
From here, they discuss objects as diverse as the Rosetta Stone and a solar-powered lamp, each of which has implicit in it an entire story about a certain time and place. As MacGregor puts it, "a single object lets you explore a world that you want to know about....a thing lets you journey immediately into another world. And it's a thing made by somebody like you with hands like yours, a mind like yours. And you're on a journey of poetic imagination to a place that you could never reach otherwise."
This got me thinking about the objects with which we surround ourselves. It's that old "alien archaeologists" scenario (that's an old scenario, right?)—essentially, what is the story the aliens would construct about my life based on the objects in my home? It's the toaster oven we use to make our toast; it's the dog bed we picked out and purchased for the mutt that lives in our house. As MacGregor puts it, "if you take one object and go into it in-depth, then you learn a lot about the people that made it, why they made it, the world it was for, and what it is to be a person needing objects and making objects." It could be that my husband has a point, that our things tell the story of our world. (Which is why I'm still throwing out that old dial-up modem.)
For more, including a video of the interview and a photo essay, check out PBS NewsHour's Art Beat blog.
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