AHOTW Symposium - Dr JD Hill - Every Object Tells a Story

Video | Updated 1 years ago

Every object tells a story; but is it the object or the story teller that is most important?


Hill: Good afternoon everybody. What I’d like to talk to you this afternoon about is objects and telling stories of objects, and use some of the objects in the A History of the World exhibition to illustrate what I want to talk about. What I want to really try and get to at the end of this talk is: ‘what makes a good object story?’ Curators, our job is objects. Now object-centred history is something which many people in history, sociology and other disciplines are actually now taking a keen interest in, because they don’t have to do objects, cause they’re not responsible for looking after objects, and presenting those objects to the public, which is the fundamental job of museum curators. So for us this question of objects, how we use objects, how we use objects to start conversations, how we use objects to promote different interpretations of our material, is central to what we actually do. And using something like A History of the World really brings home some of the key questions which actually face anyone in any situation when they’re working in a museum, putting on a new gallery, a new exhibition, or even a brand new museum. A History of the World in 100 — things, the AHOIHO phenomenon as it is now called in scholarly circles, there are now articles written about this, encapsulates a very modern trend in how you can tell stories about different aspects of our past, but using particular individual objects or moments as a way into this. It all started effectively with the BBC/British Museum project, A History of the World in 100 Objects, which I’ll talk a little bit about in the future, and of course being a public sector initiative delivered by two UK public sector organisations, we did not copyright the idea. [audience laughter]

Hill: Had we done so I may well be able to sort of retire by now. This is a mere selection of the many histories in 100 which have subsequently appeared in the last five years, ranging from a history of the world’s food, a history of Cornwall, a history of cricket, or the one I really wanted to write, A History of the Doctor Who Universe in 100 Objects. This phenomenon continues to this day. Here are four books all published in 2014, all of which tell a history of the First World War in 100 objects, two of which were even published on the same day. And I think what this raises is not just the popularity of this way of thinking about a topic but also, I think, fundamentally raises the question, which of the four books you see up there is the best? Which is the most effective in perhaps reaching its audience, but perhaps more importantly which is the most effective in the way it uses its objects to actually tell the stories it wants to do? Because many of the things we now see — and I’ll talk about this — is are they really using the object to drive the story, to tell the story from, or is the object simply been used to illustrate a story which is told from other sources? And by the way, the one I think works the best is the one in German but that may be because I’m not very good at reading German. This turn to using objects which we see exemplified in the exhibition is part of a much wider move where people are increasingly looking at objects in different ways, and here are just four examples, all published again relatively recently, which take objects either to look at personal histories — for those of you who don’t know ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’, this is Edmund de Waal’s exploration of his own family’s history through the last 100 or 150 years of European history, and his family are Jewish so you can understand the sorts of issues and questions which this raises, through a series of little Japanese carved objects which had been in that family and had passed through members of that family until he owns them now. Objects which carry with them the history of that family, the wider history of Europe, but concentrated in a very emotional way through a personal engagement with those things. Ranging of course through to other things: Vermeer’s Hat is a wonderful book where it simply takes objects in Vermeer’s paintings and explains the emergence of the globalised world in the 17th Century. So this is a trend which I think you can see, A History of the World exemplifies. But I think it’s important, and the question was asked earlier on today, to understand the origins of the actual exhibition you actually see. The key thing to stress is, you are never supposed to see A History of the World as an exhibition. A History of the World as a project is actually supposed to be listened to, and ironically, or madly, depending on how you wish to see it, you are not supposed to be able to see the object while we tell you its story. It was a radio series produced with the BBC where, following on from a tradition which the BBC public sector broadcasting has of telling narrative history on the radio, they wanted — having told the history of Britain, having told the history of the British Empire — they decided to do the foolish thing and do the history of the world, and then they decided to come and talk to Neil MacGregor at the British Museum, and he said, ‘Well, why don’t we do it with things you can’t actually see?’ as the basis of this mad idea. So this is a narrative history. That explains why it is a narrative history. That explains why it starts at the beginning, and comes up to the present day, because that’s what the BBC wanted. But it’s also worth stressing that in choosing the objects for this series, which did have many manifestations, book, podcast — here is a newspaper cartoon from the United States about one of the podcasts — but it was also being used by the [British] Museum as a way to rethink what the museum was here to do internationally and nationally. The reason we chose to do this was to really stress again or reinvent ourselves as a museum about the world. But not just the bits which most people expect to be in the British Museum’s history of the world: ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, ancient Greece. But to recognise that this museum has a huge collection which spans two million years of human history and still collects — we carry on, we haven’t stopped — but also tell this history as evenly as we possibly could. So one of the factors in choosing the objects for this radio series was that we had to cover as many parts of the world as evenly as we possibly could. Initially there was only going to be one British object in A History of the World in 100 Objects. The BBC convinced us there needed to be more British objects simply because their audience, which was initially going to be within the UK, needed key moments in British history to be able to hang this much wider global unfamiliar history on. So they needed to say, well this is the time of Stonehenge and at the time of Stonehenge in China they’re doing that, in the Americas they’re doing this, and that’s why there are more British objects in the original radio series than we initially hoped. In terms of also this evenness, we wanted an evenness in terms of types of objects. Again, thinking about this as something which is going to be listened to — as I once was a prehistoric archaeologist, I now run a museum — of course as a prehistoric archaeologist A History of the World in 100 Objects would actually be 97 stone tools, one pot shard, one sculpture and maybe a bit of art. Now the BBC did suggest to us that the listener had a limited capacity for listening to radio programs about stone tools, I can’t understand quite why. So we managed to get two in, and so this sense of variety is also the heart of choosing the objects. So these objects can’t be the same sorts of objects, they have to be different sorts of objects, different sorts of stories, and bring these together within the final constraint which is, because this was made for the radio one program a day over a week, the BBC wanted to compress all of those weekly programs into a single one hour program you could listen to on a Sunday. And for that they said all of these five programs needed to be structured round a common theme, so it didn’t appear to be five random episodes. And that’s the structure which led to A History of the World, it’s the structure which led to a radio series which has now been downloaded I think more than 15 million times — the podcast is still there freely available for anyone to listen to. It turned into a book which has been published into umpteen languages, but was never intended to be an exhibition. Because to be honest with you we didn’t actually think it would work as an exhibition. The reason we discovered it would work for an exhibition is all down to the Western Australian Museum. In 2011 Moira and I were asked at a very short notice to curate a show for CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting] where we brought objects from this museum’s collection, with the British Museum’s collections, to Perth to tell stories about the different countries in the Commonwealth. This was taking that A History of the World idea and for the first time trying it out as an exhibition. And it worked so well that that’s one of the reasons we then turned the radio series and the book into the exhibition which you see now. But because not all of the objects in the radio series can travel — one of them’s about 35 tons and really quite difficult to fly here, several of the others of them could only be shown for six months at a time — it can’t be the whole of the original 100. And so it contains many of the original series but where we can’t bring the original series objects we’ve brought objects which tell very similar sorts of stories, to actually sort of build the exhibition around it. And that explains the exhibition you see now. Now building this exhibition, and it still is an experiment, raises these questions which Belinda talked about this morning, about how can you tell histories about things from the very deep past, but also how can you tell histories of objects about the very recent past, and the different sorts of methodologies. Clearly taking an object like a hand axe, 1.5 million years old or so, using that as a point of departure to tell a story may be quite different than say taking a Drogba football shirt, and I will talk about football shirts at the end. But at heart again if you’re a museum curator I would actually argue that they’re very similar, whether or not this object is 1.5 million years old or one and a half days old. The questions you need to ask about using this object to tell stories are the same. Because telling stories of objects is about both trying to understand what the object wants you to tell, and I think that’s quite a crucial thing because physical objects are very good at tripping you up if you let them, and that’s a good thing which we should allow them to do. They’re also crucially important because these physical things are really good at sort of somehow or other sucking down to an essence some of the key issues about memory, meaning. That’s why these objects can often be very contested, and we don’t want to ignore those contestations in our stories. And of course the other thing about stories is, whenever you tell a story you’ve always got to take on board who you’re telling the story to. So for example, I’m not sure how many times Belinda has told this story already, I think I’ve done it at least 12 times in the last two days. Every time I’ve told the story of this object it has been different. And it has been different because the people I’m talking to are responding to me in a different way, the people I’m talking to I know are coming from different backgrounds, have a different level of information, and this story-telling process is a dynamic process, it is a conversation, and for it to work well it has to work in that way. The great challenge for a museum, the great challenge for a museum curator, is how do you somehow enable that type of dynamic storytelling to take place when you are constrained by having an object behind a glass case, and basically your interpretation department telling you you’re only allowed to write a label which has 50 words in it. You can do it but only just. So objects can have this powerful way of talking. Objects can do things in different ways. But I think one of the key things we want to talk about here is this issue as I said here about the different questions and issues which are challenged when you take an object. This is one of my favourite objects. This is a pepper pot from the Hoxon in Essex-Suffolk border, very close to where I live so I have a very personal connection with this object. It’s a Roman pepper pot. She’s tiny. When you go and see her she’s only about that big, but she has an incredibly big story to tell, but of course the issue is that she has many possible stories to tell. She has a story about pepper, a story about a connection across the Indian Ocean 2,000 years ago which actually connects people who were living in a remote northern part of Europe with Indian Ocean trade and urban civilisations in southern India. She has a story about what life is like living at the top end of Roman society at the very end of Roman Britain. She has a very particular story to tell because she might be the last object from Roman Britain – Belinda’s going to shoot me now, she’s a Romanist – but she’s deposited in a chest full of treasure at virtually the end of Roman Britain. The people who bury her, and we know the name of the woman who puts her bracelet into this chest last of all, who shuts it and buries it. They don’t come back and dig this up, so this dates from the very end of Roman Britain. There are many stories that we can tell with this object. The choice for the curator has always got to be you’re choosing one of many objects, you cannot put every single Roman object out in the British Museum’s galleries. You’ve got to choose the object, you’ve got to choose the story, and in choosing that story you are making conscious, I would say ethical, moral decisions about what stories you want to use this object and allow it to tell it. It’s got to be a story which the object can tell, and this comes back to this question again, what makes a good object story? For some people the object is there simply to illustrate large chunks of text on walls. My particular bugbear is I hate museum exhibitions which have lots of text and there’s a few illustrated objects down here which are just sort of there to illustrate something. Sometimes the object can be the starting point to the story. It can be the end point of the story. For me a really good object story is one where the story just spirals around this object, it keeps coming back to the object, it makes you look again at this object, pick up the details, and it takes you in different ways. And of course as I said objects are real, they are physical things, they demand being picked up which of course unfortunately we’re not going to let you do in the exhibition, because she’s silver and she’ll tarnish to start with, and she’s quite small, and you might put her in your pocket and take her away. But that’s where, if you take her up, you feel her, examine her, look at her closely, underneath you actually work out how she works as a pepper pot. Lots of people have been asking me, that’s what she looks like underneath, she has three settings, shut, lots of pepper, or for putting pepper in, and you can see the little dots for shaking the ground pepper out. You need to come back and think about this physicality of the object. To move on, and just finish off, say that recent objects can have the same issues. All museums are faced by a dilemma: what are we going to collect about now to talk about the future? What should the British Museum collect about the world now so that in 250 years time my successors can do an exhibition about now? The problem is there just seems to be too much to collect. But thinking about objects and thinking about the stories you might want to tell with the objects could provide us with a way of bringing out of this mass of things, to select key objects which we as people now are saying, these are objects which are quite important for us, they’re telling important stories, we’re giving you these objects with the stories we think you can tell with them, and passing them on to the future. We hope that you might tell them, those object stories, there may be new stories which you want to tell, but at least we’re giving you an object with a purpose. And that of course is why there is a Drogba football shirt in A History of the World. We had a long debate about what the last object should be in A History of the World. We ended up selecting five possibilities which we talked about with lots of people, we talked about with the BBC, they even had news items about each of these objects, and from those five Neil MacGregor — who is of course the author of this, it’s his history, it’s not my history — chose one. I would have chosen this. I acquired these two objects for the British Museum. They are my legacy to my successors, they’re going to have to look after them forever... [audience laughter]

Hill: ...which is really quite a nice thing to have to think about. Why? Because here are two objects which to me sum up a key thing about the world today. We live in a globalised world where premier league soccer, for reasons of which I have no understanding, is followed across the whole of the world — I’m a cricket fan. Here are two shirts, both made in China. That tells us about the growth of China in terms of industrial production and its worldwide reach. One is a fake, one is real. The fake is the one in the exhibition, the one which is real isn’t here because there are issues about copyright for the logos on it, which again tells you something very important about the world today. And of course it’s an African football player, playing in a London football club, owned by a Russian, which says something really important about the world today. So telling stories of objects I don’t think is different particularly if it’s 1.5 million years old or it’s actually two and a half days old. The issues are the same but they impose a challenge I think particularly — let’s just see if this works, I won’t talk about barbed wire, my latest passion — and I’ll just finish on this. These are issues which are confronting the new museum — you’re getting a new museum so I gather. You may have heard about it. That museum is going to have to choose objects — it may be more than 100 — which are going to have to tell a story about WA which is a story which WA people might want to hear about, the stories which people in the museum think people in WA need to know about, but the processes by which the new museum is going to have to select those objects and stories are exactly the same as the ones we’ve used for the exhibition which you’re all seeing. Thank you very much. [audience applause]

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