Friday, January 13, 2012

100. Solar-Powered Lamp and Phone Charger (China, 2010)

What lies ahead?
Speaking for myself, I’m convinced. I’m going to find a way to get solar panels on my roof.

I was very moved, at last night's final dress rehearsal of Verdi's Attila at Seattle Opera, by the moment when the refugees emerge from the storm and chaos and the tenor has to overcome his personal romantic difficulties to inspire the chorus, his people, the remnants of his shattered nation, with a vision of possibility and hope for the future. It's one of those "kneel down and kiss the soil and give thanks to God that we're alive" kind of moments, Pilgrims landing on the Massachusetts coast, the castaway emerging onto the desert island where he might make a Robinson-Crusoe-kind-of-life or might perish scenes. Powerful, and makes the alienated modern skeptic anonymous city-dweller atheist address more fundamental questions.

That's the point of MacGregor's final object, too. You may need to use a little imagination--but put yourself in a situation where you've got nothing, just the sunlight shining on your hut. A tool, a device that allows you to transform that sunlight into possibility--into communication, into light to use for study, it's magic. An inspiring, hopeful way to end this survey--like Shakespeare's heroine, emerging on an untouched shore, walking up out of the sea to see what she can make of herself on land. "What country, friends, is this?"

Thursday, January 12, 2012

99. Credit Card (European Union, 2009)

Modern finance.
MacGregor uses a credit card as his penultimate object to continue the story that began with Croesus, the one that continued with Alexander coins and Ming banknotes and Spanish pieces of eight and, more recently, suffragete-defaced pennies. (I love how, by this point in this series, he has a few basic topics of human history—sex, money, PR—which come up again and again.) Developed in the 1950s along with modern electricty, telephones, and early computing, what’s fun about a credit card is that no one who uses them really understands how they work. MacGregor even got into a little paranoia about ‘they know more and more about us while we know less and less about them,” which is probably true. On the other hand, you could pay in cash. Heck, you could pay with coin. It’d just be as cumbersome as biking everywhere.

An interesting thing about the particular credit card that he chose is that it’s issued by a bank in United Arab Emirates and is thus sharia (Islamic law) compliant. He didn’t really dwell on it throughout the series, but with the history of money comes a complicated history of attitudes toward usury (interest); all the Abrahamanic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have much to say, and complicated relationships with, the lending of money. Sharia law, today, restricts the kinds of investments an entity, such as the bank that issued this card, can make; Islam prohibits alcohol, for instance, so no investing in wineries or any related industry. (Restaurants? Hello?) And of course religions have long gotten on people’s cases about living beyond their means, indulging too much in sensual pleasure or heat-of-the-moment experiences at the expense of saving for the future and thinking about your immortal soul, etc., and credit cards change the rules quite a bit when it comes to that. On the other hand, credit cards developed in the 2nd half of that most secular of centuries, and now, in the 21st, it turns out that the pendulum has swung, that religion is once again playing a bigger role in politics and finance and in people’s lives, and that things are likely to develop in an unexpected direction. Common sense indicates that finance, even super-complicated global finance, will continue to be about what it’s always been about: trust, whether or not you think you’re really going to get your money’s worth from whoever you’re trading with. That’s the constant that never changes.

On another note, when I was actually in the museum (was it really over half a year ago now?) I got confused by which credit card was the one in the podcast (which I hadn’t at that point heard). The British Museum, like many of us, has several. So I photographed the above card, since it reminded me of my first job, summer of ’94, when my fellow interns and I at the Glimmerglass Opera ticket office would make fun of patrons who called to order opera tickets and still referred to their “Mastercard” (the name in 1994) as “Mastercharge.” (Patron: “I’d like two tickets to The Incoronation of Pompey, and put them on my Mastercharge, please.” Dopey kid employeed by the Box Office of the Damned: “I'm sorry, ma'am, but there’s no such opera, and no such financial institution. If you like, I could charge you for tickets to The Coronation of Poppea on a Mastercard...”) But, as often happens with opera patrons, that’s just history at work; these people started calling their card by that name when it first came out, in the ‘50s, and damned if they were going to use a different name now. I hope I’m like that someday. I probably already am.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

98. Throne of Weapons (Mozambique, 2001)

Modern war and peace.
In the history of humanity, you could spend a lot of energy going on about the new weapons, the unprecedented violence of the twentieth century: systematic genocides in a Holocaust, nuclear bombs obliterating cities, biological and chemical warfare, etc. I’ve always been depressed to think how brutal and nasty people were in the 1500s, but the 1900s had bigger numbers and seem even more terrible. But MacGregor has chosen not to dwell on the violence in his history, probably because it’s so awful and it’s such a downer. In the field of eco-communications, for instance, although it’s really easy to fill people with grim despair, current prevailing winds would encourage us (interpreters of nature, makers of eco-documentaries, advocates for alternative transportation, etc.) to dwell on the positive and always present easy action-items, the ‘what can you do?’ lists, to empower people whom despair would otherwise crush into inaction. That’s my guess about the origin of this extremely moving podcast.

The object here, a work of art made in Mozambique by an artist named ‘Kester,’ is a throne made mostly from Kashelnikov rifles. The history behind it gives MacGregor a chance to talk about the post-Colonial world and the Cold War, because after the 19th century’s “Scramble for Africa” when all the empires were trying to set up colonies, in the 20th century all the empires went broke because of the World Wars, so they let their colonies go and govern themselves. The post-WWII Cold War set up became a second “Scramble for Africa” and lots of other places (Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan) that weren’t exactly under the influence of either side in the Cold War, and both blocs, the Eastern and the Western, desperately wanted to increase their influence and power—thus the bloody mess in so many of those places. MacGregor points out that people who are good at leading a revolution, at breaking a colony away from an imperial overlord, aren’t necessarily good at setting up a stable government or ruling in peace. George Washington was perhaps an exception (or perhaps he wasn’t very good at being either a soldier or a statesman or both!). That’s one way of looking at civil wars in places like Mozambique, which the Communists wanted as an ally given its proximity to western-dominated South Africa and Rhodesia/Zambia; that’s why they had so many Russian guns in Mozambique that (later on) they could use them as furniture.

The turn-around that led to the object here is a beautiful story, an endeavor led by a bishop starting in 1995 to convert all the weapons into other kinds of tools—swords into ploughshares, rifles into a chair. (A throne, actually, because most people in Mozambique don’t have or use chairs.) The wars had gotten so extreme that people’s brains were entirely wired around guns and weapons and aggression and killing; the peacemakers (Kofi Annan was MacGregor’s guest, and spoke beautifully) found it difficult to teach them any other way of being, because that was all they’d known. But changing the weapon into something else proved a transformative approach. The man who made this throne talked about several members of his family who had been maimed, and how when he saw what looked like a little eyes and a smile on the shoulder-butts of each of these rifles he had the idea of making this object to humanize, to transform the weapons into people, turning them away from destroyers of people. The more I say about it, the more I’ll ruin it, so let’s just end by saying—that bishop had a really wonderful idea, akin to the suffragette who figured out how to get the message onto the coin. Let’s celebrate those people, and encourage more of them in the years to come!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

97. Hockney’s In the Dull Village (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Human rights.
This little drawing, by David Hockney, gives MacGregor a jumping-off point to talk about the horrific human rights abuses and consequent movements that characterize the twentieth century. Actually, he doesn’t say that much about all that, just that, following World War II, suddenly it became very clear to most intelligent people that it was extremely crucial that human beings stop discriminating so much. We’ve already heard a little bit about women’s rights, and about the slave trade (although his attitude towards racial discrimination and its antithesis are amusingly British and un-American: for us it’s a far bigger deal); here he has an object connected with gay rights, something the series hasn’t much discussed since we were in Roman Palestine. But gay rights are a terrific issue, now that we’re racing to the present, since, in the generations that are alive today, everyone has heard and thought a lot about it. I was surprised to hear, on the podcast, that gay sex is illegal in 70 countries in today’s world (when this podcast was released in 2010). So it’ll probably continue as an issue for another century or so, if not forever.

The object here, a sketch of two guys in bed, in a nondescript space but given the title ‘In the Dull Village,” is wonderfully subversive because there’s nothing particularly sexual going on, unlike that Warren Cup. It’s possible that one of them is thinking about coffee, the other is wondering if he’s ready to get up and look at the newspaper yet; and that they’re fond of each other, although we don’t get a lot of specific about the relationship. They’re a little too close to each other to be simply two guys who had to share a bed the night before. (My main point of reference for this “Are they or aren’t they?” business isn’t Sam and Frodo, but rather Ishmael and Queequeg, where it seems Melville really does want to infuriate us, his readers, with uncertainty about the sexual details of a same-sex relationship.) Hockney is in fact illustrating a poem by a Greek poet from Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy, about a kid working as a clerk in a boring village and fantasizing about having pleasure, flesh, a lover. I didn’t get that from the picture (which one is real, which one fantasy?); I got a much more beautiful, because quotidian, image of love, two people enjoying being together. Which takes us all the way back to our very first image of love, back in stone age Judea.

For me, the fantasy story—while true, truer than most fiction, almost omnipresent in my own experience—isn’t quite as beautiful, I guess, because it’s so pointless and frustrating. As is the boredom and lust that causes it. I like what (I think) Wagner had to say about this issue in Tristan und Isolde, that such desire/hunger will forever engender more of itself, so the only thing to do is ‘just say no’. Not that such renunciation is satisfying: it’s just not as endlessly unsatisfying as the pursuit. But this question isn’t a specifically twentieth century one, and it’s neither gay nor straight. The eternal struggle!

Monday, January 9, 2012

96. Russian Revolutionary Plate (Russia, 1921)

Communism, as propaganda and practical policy.
Major world-history story of the twentieth century: the Communist experiment. Since the rise of big states, centralized power, and wealth accumulating in a few hands—that is, since ancient Sumer, if not Harappa or before—there have been experiments in socialism, as well as plenty of de facto socialist situations, where there aren’t a lot of people, and so, those who are there share everything. But the thinking about it got much more intense in the nineteenth century, the age of Marx and Engels, as well as the age of industrialization, of technology organizing every inch of the globe into colonial empires, and huge population growth (blame modern medicine: stop saving so many lives!). So perhaps it was inevitable that in the twentieth century, we’d try to get this thing organized. It didn’t work out particularly well, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ attempted by the USSR. But I like MacGregor’s attitude in this podcast, so refreshing after all the Cold War propaganda they shoved down our throats when we were kids, trying to figure out where the Soviets were coming from.

This plate is a useful object for this topic, because while its image is staunchly communist propaganda—Joe Worker, gazing off toward the factory that flames red with the ardent zeal of his forward-pushing enthusiasm, treading mightily over the shattered fragments of the capitalist system—the plate itself is kind of a concession. The early Soviet government was dead broke, and millions of Russians were starving in the early 20s. This plate, made of luxury porcelain, was still sitting in storage, imageless, in the St. Petersburg imperial porcelain forge—a relic of the ancien régime past which the Communists swept away with such fierce passion. But as luxury porcelain, it still commanded a hefty price in the west. So it was imprinted, twenty years after being made, with this Communist image and sold off en masse to filthy Western capitalist swine oppressors, suffocating their peasants beneath the weight of their own bloated luxury. Not what the Communist Manifesto prescribed, perhaps, but not a bad way to make a few bucks in international trade. One of the things I found charming, in a sad way, about MacGregor’s podcast here was the Communist wonk who wanted the imperial porcelain forge to become a school of Soviet art and science. Sure, both those things (art and science) go into making a nice plate like this; but only a dogmatic pedant, ie those in charge of that Communist state, would get so self-conscious as to point that out. That’s fine for teaching (in fact, that’s all this entire podcast series and blog has been about!); but teaching is not living. That’s often hard to remember.

As a member of the ‘teacherly’ intelligensia, I find the positioning of socialism, if not communism, kind of interesting in modern America. It was taken for granted, in most academic circles in most of the twentieth century, that socialists were on to something; you didn’t have to point out that you were a Marxist historian, you were just a historian, and everybody assumed you were a Marxist. (Or a music analysand or literary critic or whatever.) As I write this blog, the “Occupy Seattle” movement of crypto-Marxists who claim to be the 99% are finally packing up their tents, as the cops crack down on them and it gets colder and darker and wetter. Yes, they’re filthy (as most people have been throughout human history) and their plan for building a better future is not very clear. (The Soviets were winging it, too, despite their blazing rhetoric.) But are they wrong?

Friday, January 6, 2012

95. Suffragette-Defaced Penny (England, AD 1903)

Nonviolent resistance. And Women’s Rights!
For an object that’s in many ways whimsical, and certainly positive all around—is this the first object in our history whose story doesn’t involve war or hurting people or ripping people off or excluding people from a group?—it’s nice that this touches on two of the most important trends of the ultra-violent, terrible twentieth century. Nonviolent resistance went, in the century when many of us lived the majority of our years (in 2028 I’ll have lived more of my life in the 21st than I did in the 20th), from something people may have thought or talked about, particularly Christians, to being a huge political force with significant accomplishments to its credit. If you’re ever getting depressed and full of despair, remember the accomplishments of nonviolent politics in India, in the American South, and in terms of women’s rights.

This suffragette-defaced penny is an awesome object. As MacGregor points out, there’s a genius at work here. As PR and as aesthetics, whoever came up with this strategy deserves the highest possible accolades. The goal of this PR stunt was simple: get out the message, “VOTES FOR WOMEN.” (In Edwardian England, although more and more men were being given the vote, not only were women as a gender denied the vote, the entire social structure was built around women being delicate, gentle, pointless ninnies who couldn’t be asked to comprehend the issues, because that would limit their ability to command the pedestals on which they were placed. This policy prevented anyone of the male gender from being delicate et. al. and strictly limited all female behavior to an absurdly narrow compass, with consequences I suspect we’re still suffering from.) The genius simplicity of the stunt is that by putting the message on pennies, it ensures that lots of people will see the message. Posters can be torn down, newspapers can be censored, there wasn’t any radio or tv; but pennies had such little value, the government wouldn’t have wasted the money recalling them. With 13 hammer strokes (each letter was applied to each penny separately) a penny could be defaced for life, and untold zillions of people would see the message. It’s an aesthetic triumph, too, because as you can see the message is going straight into the king’s ear—on the penny, if not in real life. If you turn this penny over (I didn’t, and don’t have a photograph so you’ll have to take my word for it) on the other side you see “Britannica,” your typical figurehead-mascot Statue of Liberty-type-chick: the woman on a pedestal, fantasized right out of reality. On our side, you see a very real woman, with crude but powerful weapons, making her voice heard.

MacGregor’s podcast goes into a few details of the suffragette movement, including the time Ethyl Smythe conducted her “March of the Suffragettes” from her prison cell with a toothbrush. (I’m sorry to say he doesn’t play my personal favorite, the suffragette anthem written by the Sherman Brothers for Disney’s Mary Poppins, “We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats, / And dauntless crusaders for women’s votes!” And more to the point, he interviews a lawyer who asks the most important question about civil disobedience: When have you gone too far? She answers, simply, it’s all fine till someone gets hurt; nonviolent resistance should not cause harm (to others; gets a bit more complicated with martyrs like Jesus). I’m sure you can take college classes discussing the ethics of it, I wish I had, but presumably common sense can get you some ways down this road, too.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

94. Sudanese Slit Drum (Sudan, AD 1850-1900)

The Scramble for Africa.
And...the scramble continues. 2011 was a momentous year for Sudan, which we saw earlier in this history in its tensions with Egypt, making sphinxes of the Kushite pharaoh or burying Caesar Augustus’s head in the sand. In the last few centuries, though, the tension has been between the Islamic north and the African south—the two groups that split apart and made separate countries last summer. This drum, which was carved three times, tells of three different overlapping worlds trying to control this area.

It was carved first for some central African king, presumably in the nineteenth century. It’s a kind of drum that’s sometimes found in villages in central Africa—in the shape of a calf (about that size, too), with four different thicknesses, so it can produce four different tones, and enormous so the drumming can be heard miles away. As we saw when the west Africans were shipping all their slaves to the Americas, drums are hugely important to these people. This one may have started life in an African village, but in a conflict with the Islamic north, it was re-etched, this time with Arabic-inspired decoration, the swirls you see on the side. Now, the Islamic leaders of Khartoum hated the Khedive in Egypt, who was technically administering Sudan during the nineteenth century, on behalf of the Ottoman Empire; they were fairly hardcore Moslems, in Khartoum, who despised the corruption and lax ways of the Egyptians and Turks. Tensions there threatened to mess up the balance of power, which brought in the British—they needed a puppet Khedive in Egypt in order to protect their rights to the Suez Canal, otherwise how would they get all that cheap tea back to England from India? Also, lots of British abolitionists despised that fact that, although England had abolished slavery early in the century, and America toward the end of the century, Khartoum was the biggest slave trade city in the world, most of the slaves going to the Middle East. (I had no idea!) So in went General Gordon against the Mahdi—as portrayed by Charleton Heston and Laurence Olivier in the watchable-if-not-great film, Khartoum—and he got chopped up into bits. About 15 years later, Kitchener came back in with more British troops, slaughtered untold thousands at the Battle of Omdurman, and etched a big “Victoria Regina” crown on this calf drum before bringing it to England as a souvenir.

The Mahdi’s revolt was the first time in modern history a group of fundamentalist Moslems have gotten organized to fight a big imperial power. It wouldn’t be the last. And as Japan learned in yesterday’s podcast, if another country/group/religion is causing trouble, you can’t just ignore them any more. What to do?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

93. Hokusai’s The Great Wave (NOT ON DISPLAY)

No more isolationism.
A shame; I’ve always maintained as strict an isolationist policy in as many things as possible. But at some point, with new technologies for transportation and communication, it simply becomes impractical. Then you just become rude.

In any event, this podcast is about a woodblock print made in Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, part of a series of “Views of Mt. Fuji” that became popular, nay, even iconic. MacGregor uses it to tell the story of how the U.S. forced Japan to open up to the rest of the world, in 1853, speculates on what this meant, and proposes a couple of different interpretations of the image. It’s a fascinating story, chronicled in Sondheim’s weird 1976 opera Pacific Overtures. (Never seen it! It doesn’t get done all that often. But I’ve known about it for years, and, kicked in the butt by this podcast, finally got around to reading/listening to it.) Ever since Japan closed down to the outside world in the 1630s, the only way in or out was through Nagasaki, where the Dutch and the Chinese were allowed to trade. (Remember the Kaikemon Elephants?) The U.S. finally sailed in with 500 men and warships, in 1853, and threatened an ineffective government (a puppet-emporer under the direction of the Shogun, according to Sondheim) into allowing the rest of the world in. Act 2 opens with my favorite number: Sondheim writes parodies of American, British (of course they’re imitating The Mikado), Dutch, Russian, and French music as each nationality pushes its way in and starts fighting with the others. For a country that had been largely disconnected, they industrialized much more quickly than most of Asia and became the only Asian country to establish, or at least to try to establish, an empire in that great and awful Age of Empires that climaxed in World War II. I know this story much better from Madama Butterfly; but since that’s mostly Italian sexual fantasy, it isn’t particularly relevant.

As for the print, it inspires Butterfly, at least, because this print (and the 70 or so other “Views of Mt. Fuji” that were printed by the thousands) made its way to Europe and inspired that movement of japonisme that you hear in these operas. (The Mikado, too, which is probably just as ridiculous.) But is the idea of the image a) Japan, serene and eternal or b) Japan, about to be engulfed by a great wave, run for your lives, and even then you’ll never make it to Mt. Fuji (ie the Golden Age) ‘cause it’s too far off in the distance! The great wave may be the policy of isolationism, protecting Japan from the horrors of the rest of the world; or it may be the terrifying force of the rest of the world, about to engulf Japan like the storm in Ponyo; and it may be in the background behind Japanese fears of Godzilla-monsters, etc., although that’s often explained as being a reaction to the bomb. (Which MacGregor never mentions.)

In any event, it’s probably extremely important for us non-Japanese to figure out how to see things, such as this history, from the Japanese point of view. Hard to do. It’s easy to eat sushi and watch Kurosawa movies and play with electronics. But only a true shift in perspective will help avert future cultural misunderstandings.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

92. Early Victorian Tea Set (England, 1840-1845)

Everything’s for everyone.
I think this is MacGregor’s last extremely British object. (Coming to the end of his series, now, I repeat I’m a little peeved that although he’s been all over the world and all through time, he doesn’t really have any objects from the two countries in which I’ve lived: Michigan and Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest). His buckskin map came close to Michigan (and it’s true, apart from inventing cars the only thing of world-historical significance that ever happened there was the French & Indian War), and they do have cool Pacific Northwest totems and masks in the British Museum; but somehow those didn’t make it onto his list.) In any event, what could be more British than tea? Yet that statement sounds more simple than it really is: nothing could be more industrializing-British-empire than tea, true. But as we’ve seen in the Mold Gold Cape or the Vale of York Horde, there’s much more to Britain than its 19th century empire.

The empire brings the world to Britain in a big way, and you can explore it in the tea set. You’re drinking tea, which was domesticated in China originally, although to punish China for fighting the Opium Wars with Britain they moved much of the tea production to India during the nineteenth century. You’ve probably added sugar, which was grown in the West Indies by African slaves, and like the tea brought to England on great clipper ships. And some people take it with milk; cows haven’t changed much since ancient Egypt, but it was a big deal, in the 19th century, to invent railroads so the cows could stay out in the country and every day the milk could be dragged into the cities. And you’re drinking it out of British-made porcelain, which as we saw earlier was a Chinese innovation that developed when Genghis Khan dashed along the Silk Road and brought Iran in touch with China. In this case, it’s Wedgwood, which started as a porcelain-maker for the elite; but the nineteenth century sees the rise of mass everything, so this set was affordable and mass-produced, still with an upwardly mobile trend, but for the common man. This simple, insignificant British ritual—the ubiquitous ‘nice cup of tea’ is in fact the essence of history; everything in our series so far has been leading to this drink.

Now, of local relevance to the rise of tea, socially, in England in the nineteenth century is the fact that tea has a major advantage over beer and wine as a national drink: it peps people up, rather than slows them down, promotes hard-working docility over boisterous roistering. Both were safer than water, back in the days when no country could organize clean drinking water, but there was a big nineteenth-century crusade, part of temperance and other such annoying causes, to get the common man drinking tea. It worked so well, of course, many of us still enjoy our daily cuppa. As a Seattleite I’m a coffee man, myself, but whenever I go to England I drink tea like a fiend and then come home and drink it for weeks until coffee takes back over. We love caffeine here—keeps us from turning into moss-covered Pacific Northwest totem poles. When that finally happens, you can put me in the British museum.

Monday, January 2, 2012

91. Ship’s Chronometer from HMS Beagle (England, 1800-1850)

Modern times.
These last few podcasts have to bring us up to date in our history of the world, and to some extent they’re a bit of a joke. We all know already, and what could MacGregor possibly say? And yet he makes some interesting points, beginning with something he calls “the long 19th century”—that is, from the French Revolution to World War I. I love that, because all the popular operas are from that period, and from Europe; they fit into that little scooch. Lots of operas before and after, but the ones that are easy to sell are pieces from this "long-19th-century."

This podcast is about time: labelling it, controlling it, channeling it, thinking about and positioning it. Because it’s not just the accurate ship chronometer, which allowed the British Navy (and eventually, once they admitted the British were cooler than they were, the French) to figure out longitude—this particular chronometer is (one of 22, they had extras for the sake of accuracy and backup) from the ship that took Darwin to the Galapagos for the research that eventually became The Origin of Species—blowing the hoo-hah off the Christian church’s old “God created the universe in a week in 4004 B.C.” silliness. The invention of the modern concept of time, a non-traditional Western concept of time, in which time is for all practical purposes infinite—stretching back into darkness, forward into darkness.

MacGregor tends to slight my part of the world. So here's a photo of another ship's chronometer, this one from Vancouver's voyage on the H.M.S. Discovery, which brought English speakers to a certain Sound (named for Vancouver's first mate, Peter Puget) in 1793. Both chronometers are in the British Museum's room of clocks:

Curiously, we’re also learning to tame space, at the same time as we learn to control time...the other big reason to develop new ways of organizing time, in the 19th century, was railroad schedules. That’s how they get the clocks unified across a small area like Britain, and presumably time zones in the US followed suit. New technologies breed more new technologies: ships and trains breed new ways of living and thinking, and with them new ways of measuring, and with that more new ways. Modern times equals new ways.

Friday, December 30, 2011

90. Jade Bi (China, AD 1790)

Now that we’re fast approaching our own self-conscious age, we look at an object that embodies the spirit of all these podcasts: the impulse to write, control, and understand history. In this case, MacGregor has found a gorgeous jade bi, almost 3000 years old, which was defaced in 1790 when a historian scribbled his podcast history all over it. The historian here was the Qianlong Emperor who ruled China for most of the eighteenth century—a period of great expansion and success for China, the envy of most contemporary western states (MacGregor details English, French, and German imitations of Chinese manifestations at the time), and presumably the model for China in our own century. MacGregor subjects the Qianlong Emperor, as historian, to what is presumably the same bar he holds up for himself and his own team; he finds what the Emperor has written on the bi inaccurate (the Emperor claims this bi, which was found in a tomb, was a holder for a wasn’t), self-serving (the Emperor’s historical project was intended as propaganda, to show his rightful inheritance of the 3000 year-old mandate of heaven we saw so long ago with the Zhou), and incompetent (an actor reads the poem written on the bi, MacGregor has it translated, and then brings in a Chinese historian to say that it’s a crummy poem and is no better than the 20th century propaganda pieces which are so familiar, and suspect, to intelligent Chinese). Yet MacGregor still applauds his project, finding history in ancient objects and trying to tell a story which will be constructive and productive for our own time. I suppose nobody got hurt when the Qianlong Emperor scratched his poem on this old bi; that, and the calligraphy of the poem is kind of pretty.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

89. Australian Bark Shield (Australia, AD 1770)

Rewriting poorly-written history.
This crummy photograph (taken through glass in the dimly-lit Enlightenment Gallery) shows a shield, made from the bark of a tree that grows about 200 miles north of Sydney, that was flourished when Captain Cook first landed at Botany Bay (near modern Sydney) in 1770. He and his men immediately came into conflict with some natives: the natives threw spears and missed, probably on purpose, and Cook, fearing that the spear-tips were poisoned, shot at them with muskets (and missed). One of the natives dropped this shield, which they must have obtained through trade from a group to the north, and eventually it worked its way to the British Museum. So it wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning to what became a great country: the next day, Cook and his men found a settlement, offered shiny beads to some children, and were surprised the next day to find that the natives had left and had left the beads behind. “I don’t understand, all the other natives we found in this crazy part of the world go nuts for beads!” Cook then recommended that England use the lush Botany Bay harbor for a penal colony, and Australia began. (Is there a Michener novel about this area yet?)

In any event, MacGregor’s bigger point here is about the writing of history. The history of Australia has always been written exclusively from the Enlightened, British point of view, no matter the failures of wisdom (as in Cook’s death in Hawaii) or judgement, or the downright deplorable attitudes toward indigenous people that end up in these histories. Problem is, if you can’t write, then you can’t influence the way history gets written. But if you can make a shield, or barter to get a cool shield from a neighboring group, then you have in fact created a different kind of historical record. That’s his point—a defense of his program, making a history of the world in objects, in the hopes that these objects, many of which were created by illiterates, give a rounder, fuller, newer approach to the story of what happened. Certainly if a contemporary writer (the podcast quotes the diaries of Cook and Joseph Banks extensively) missed the point because they couldn’t understand the cultures with which they were interacting, or considered aborigines disposable, animals and not men, then we can consider the history they wrote to be poorly written. Whether MacGregor’s history—which is not exactly written, but created, blogged, podcasted, spoken, printed, photographed, videoed, e-chronicled—is better remains to be seen.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

88. North American Buckskin Map (NOT ON DISPLAY)

World War 0; or, the limitations of centralized authority.
Here’s a map of the midwest south of my homeland of Michigan—Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, apparently part of Missouri—made on a deer’s hide. You can even see the holes where the musket bullet killed the deer. It’s hard to see the map, but apparently it’s sort of a stylized subway map of the river systems in that part of the world; not to scale, but good for navigation. MacGregor tells us that the cities/habitations marked on the map tend to be native American settlements, not white; for instance, St. Louis was growing at the time this map was made, but isn’t where it ought to be on the Mississippi. This map was probably copied by whites from a native-made original, according to an expert (with a British accent) who notices that this copy is a little more refined, more carefully finished, than the typical native scrawl. (That’s what the guy said!)

It dates from the period of the French and Indian War, aka the Seven Years’ War, which MacGregor dubs (in the hook to his podcast) the first World War. True, that war (1756-1763) was a global escalation of the ongoing French vs. British war that you could trace (if you wanted) back before Henry V to William the Conqueror, and probably earlier. For the first time, in the Seven Years’ War, the British and French were fighting in India, and Africa, and remote locations like Mackinaw City, Michigan. In North America they were mostly fighting about hunting and trapping rights and routes. But waiting in the wings, the WASP settlements along the Atlantic coast were chomping at the bits to spill westwards and settle this vast new land, beckoning like Ishmael’s “things remote.” The result of the Seven Years’ War, for North American history, was that a huge chunk of land, the area in this map, fell under British administration; within a generation, with the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson would oust the French from the next third of the continent, freeing that up for white Americans. And of course, neither development boded well for the people who already lived in this area.

The big problem was another major cultural misunderstanding. In the British and then American tradition, land was to be owned. You could establish rights to land, you could have deeds and title and escrow and mortgages and you could sell land, it was a commodity to be traded. The natives didn’t understand the concept: land was land, an element of the world, like water, air, and animals, imbued with the million spirits of god. MacGregor’s expert on this podcast underlines an important point about native Americans’ attitude toward land, one also made in the apocryphal “Chief Seattle” speech: “Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them.” He says it’s a tribal way of thinking, to structure history as people bounded by land, as opposed to people bounded by time (which is, I deduce, an enlightened, or nation-based way of thinking.) Whichever it is, it’s one of the main political conflicts of the modern era. And it proved impossible for a remote government in London, with other problems and financial constraints, to do a good job mediating between the needs of the natives and the needs of the settlers. So guess who got shafted.

I grew up without a tribe; what group identity I’ve had, in my experience, has come from the nation, and then from very small groups (my family, my team, my cast, my orchestra, my company). Moreover, the federalized system, the post-50s superhighways and homogenized culture in which I grew up impressed me, from a very early age, with the important lesson: if you stay in one place all your life, you’re a failure. You should move to new states, explore strange new malls, watch TV in a different time zone! “I’m sick of grinders, Marge!” says Homer. “I want a hoagie, a sub, a foot-long! Please, won’t you let me live?” I did that, and in recent years have ended up with a much deeper connection to my whereabouts (Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest) than I ever had to any place I have lived. But those early lessons die hard, and I will go to my grave thinking it’s important for the human being to be portable. You should be able to live anywhere. Tribal assignments to a given location, I was taught and can’t not believe, cause suffering.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

87. Hawaiian Feather Helmet (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Cultural Misunderstanding.
Here’s a gorgeous helmet which would have required the feathers plucked from some 2500 birds of Hawaii, made into an amazing ceremonial helmet that was presented to Captain Cook when he first landed on the big island of Hawaii. That first landing was during the month devoted to the god of peace. When he returned later, during the month devoted to the god of war, Cook received something of an entirely different nature from the Hawaiians: the spear-thrust that killed him. Don’t ask me why they had a month devoted to the god of peace, and then a month devoted to the god of war; I’m reminded of the old Peanuts cartoon, where Linus asks at Christmastime “Why do we only feel and share thoughts of love and joy and Christmas? Why can’t we be like this all year long?” and Lucy responds, “What are you, some kind of fanatic?”

Cook has long been a great hero of mine, in terms of that Ishmael-like need for a quest: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” Who knows what inner dissonance impels such spirits ever to map the unknown regions: men like Richard Burton (another personal hero), who was so completely at sea in London society. It’s not wisdom. Wisdom might help, if you want to make it back in one peace; you might even be in quest of wisdom, as I suspect Ishmael is, when you set out. But Cook’s ultimate failure in Hawaii indicates a lack of wisdom, in some degree; a poor choice that then backfired. In this case, apparently, some islanders had stolen a small boat from his ship, probably (in the spirit of the god of war) trying to push it, try out a little aggression, see where that got them. Cook tried to kidnap the king from the beach, to hold him for ransom until the boat was returned, but the king’s bodyguards killed him as they walked along the beach. It was an unusual but fatal miscalculation, for a man who had finished mapping the globe, filled in all the remaining white spaces, and done so (in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific) with remarkably few hostilities and fatalities.

Yet the main takeaway is that, even if he was good at setting up amicable relationships centered on trade and barter, at bottom there was always huge misunderstanding, based on fundamental ideas so central to the miscommunicating cultures that they could barely be expressed. Example: one of MacGregor’s experts, on this podcast, was a Hawaiian intellectual who spoke of Hawaii’s eventual independence from the United States. Is there a movement afoot, for them to secede? News to me. I can see why they’d want to be their own nation, their association with this country is probably more advantageous to us than it is to them. But as a mainland American who occasionally does business in Hawaii but doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the state, it would never occur to me that there was a movement afoot to separate. Cultural misunderstanding, 21st century, alive and well.

Monday, December 26, 2011

86. Akan Drum (US, AD 1700-1750)

African Slave Trade.
This drum was constructed from wood of a tree in West Africa, as well as other little tightening-pieces from that part of the world; the skin stretched across it, however, is from mid-Atlantic America. Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum, found it in Virginia in the 1720s, I think they said, and brought it back to London, where it has since had a place of honor in the museum. MacGregor has two special guests on this podcast, one a Londoner whose family origin was African-American, so like this drum they were enslaved in Africa, shipped to America, and eventually became British citizens; the other, a Princeton professor from West Africa, who points out that in thinking about this object you have a choice: you can a) get bogged down by the horror, the inhumanity, of the story, or b) find something a little more forward-looking about the peregrinations of this drum.

As such, it’s one of their most powerful podcasts. The drum was apparently used, during the dreaded ‘Middle Passage,” when they needed “to dance the slaves,” that is, to force them to come up on deck and jump around a little bit, for purposes of health and morale. Yet the dancing is a double-edged sword, because it turns into jazz, eventually: the great cry of humanity arising from this tremendous injustice and inhumanity. We’ve managed to stop that particular manifestation of inhumanity; and the nice thing is, we all have jazz and continue to enjoy this living tradition.

Friday, December 23, 2011

85. Reformation Centenary Broadsheet (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Printing causes the Protestant Reformation!
We had the printing press a few podcasts back, when Dürer circulated a rhinoceros he’d never seen. Here’s another woodblock-printed illustration, one which brings up issues such as printing and literacy, the Protestant reformation and the 30 Years’ War, political cartoons, and centenary celebrations. This cartoon was printed and circulated out of Leipzig in 1617, marking the 100th anniversary of the famous day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the cathedral in Wittenberg, launching the Reformation; although it circulated in northern Germany where they were celebrating this cenetenary, it was in no uncertain terms a gauntlet tossed to the Elector of Saxony (ruling from nearby Dresden, I suppose) to get ready for war—the 30 Years’ War, which began the next year in 1618, devastated Germany and all central Europe through 1648 when they finally gave up and decided to live together. This war so weakened Germany, they were no competition for France in the late 1600s, when Louis XIV emerged to lead Europe and rule the world now that Spain was declining.

But none of that is in the document itself. Instead, it’s a very busy political cartoon which has Luther writing his essay “Against Indulgences” on the church door, at left, with an enormous quill pen which is spearing the brains of the lion-pope Leo X and knocking off the silly hat of the human-pope standing near the lion. Feathers are dripping from Luther’s mighty pen, and elsewhere they’re pulling feathers out of a goose—literacy and writing are spreading like wildfire, and dopey church is powerless to stop it. You’ve also got a Luther in the middle-right, higher up, studying his Bible, and light from above (sent down by a funny-looking holy trinity) illuminates his page. Strong imagery for the power of books, word, text, written communication.

One of MacGregor’s experts goes so far as to claim that this revolution was TOO successful—that now we are mired in words, embedded and cemented in them. His other expert is a political cartoonist with a different point of view, who claims that all the usual tricks of political cartoons were already here in this document in 1618, using an image to make your enemy look stupid/weak and you look mighty and strong. In fact, that trick goes back as far as King Den’s sandal label, doesn’t it? It may be true that words can be a trap, for those who take up the verbal lifestyle. Yet it seems to me that currently we’re in a wonderful world of mixed media—that you need both words and image in most modern forms of communication. The fewer words, the better; but the right words take your picture and whirl it through multiple dimensions in a way that makes me (as a writer/blogger/communicator) very happy.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

84. Mexican Codex Map (NOT ON DISPLAY)

How Mexico Became Catholic.
Here’s another example, following on yesterday’s Islamic Bima, detailing an odd commingling of religion that follows an imperial conquest. When the Spanish took Mexico from the Aztecs, in the 1500s, the Catholics quickly started missionary work and conversions. Yes, they were killing and massacring them, too, and releasing diseases that would decimate their numbers; but the Catholics wanted them alive and willing converts, otherwise they felt it didn’t take. Officially, the natives worshipped devils, and it would be a great victory for Holy Mother Church and her Inquisition if they could save all those souls. And yet, the practical solution, as every successful conqueror has discovered, is to adapt the old faith that everybody knew to the new faith you’re trying to impose—thus, Christmas takes the place of the old pagan solstice holiday (convenient that Jesus was born then, no?). In Mexico, it gives you things such as the Day of the Dead, which combined native Mexican ancestor worship with the Catholic All Saints’ Day/All Souls Day business, or the map of a region near Mexico City in this podcast, which features the adorable location “Cathedral of Santa Barbara at the Place of the Toad”—they kept the altar at the place which everybody associated with worship, just changed what it was they were worshipping.

The destruction of Aztec civilization, along with so many other native American situations, is easily deplored and condemned by apologist historians. Slightly deeper analysis: in some cases it was easy for the Spanish to overthrow the Aztec power structure, because the Aztecs themselves were deeply resented imperial overlords, and lots of native groups were delighted to get rid of them—after all, no one could possibly be worse than these chocolate-sipping sadists. That may not excuse what the Spanish did to the Aztecs, but it’s a useful lesson for would-be imperialists: it’s easier to create your colonies where there’s no central authority, just a lot of warring tribes you can play against each other, or where, as in this case, there is a central authority whom everybody hates. Throw down the dark lord, take his ring, and set yourself up as the new dark lord, it’s all quite straightforward.

MacGregor concludes his podcast by pointing out that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the best example of a strictly Mexican Catholic amalgam. She appeared (in what’s now Mexico City) to a young Aztec a few years after the conquest began, and is now the second most visited Catholic shrine in the world, after Rome, I guess. Even Mexican atheists, communists, and extreme free-thinkers have a hard time not being devoted to Our Lady there.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

83. Shadow Puppet of Bima (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Theater and the Religio-Political Hegemon.
I quite like this object, although I admit a great failing—I’ve never been to an Indonesian shadow-puppet performance. Presumably there are occasionally opportunities, here in Seattle, to enjoy this kind of theater, and for some reason I’ve never gotten organized. The puppet on this podcast represents Bima, the Hercules/Samson/Thor comic strongman hero of the Mahabharata, and would have been used in all-night puppet shows, projecting shadows on a white sheet. Women and children sat on the far side and watched the play of shadows; men in the audience sat on the side with the puppet and enjoyed watching its careful painting and operation. MacGregor speaks with a famous contemporary Indonesian shadow-puppeteer, who says of his trade, “it’s fun, but it’s complicated!” I bet—operating up to six puppets in a given scene, doing all the voices for the dialogue, and somehow conducting a gamelon orchestra at the same time (and occasionally singing, if that’s needed).

Historically, one of the things that’s odd about this particular situation is here’s a Hindu character, playing a big role in the culture of an Islamic country. Indonesia (this puppet comes from Java, which we last visited when they were building the great Buddhist temple at Borodbudur) became Islam during the age of the Ottoman and Mughal Empires, mostly because that made trading with these huge nations easier. But the shadow-puppet theater and the Hindu stories, mostly Mahabharata and Ramayana derivatives, were already hugely popular. So Indonesia’s new Islamic leadership encourages them to stylize the characters even further, to get away from the Islamic prohibition against depicting the human form; that’s why Bima has claws instead of hands, and why his figure is so strange. (On the next island over, Hindu/Buddhist Bali, the Bima puppets look more like human beings.) I suppose the interaction of current religion and popular, ancient story here parallels the situation when a Christian writer takes up the story of the pagan Beowulf...or when Catholic Italian opera composers do stories from Greek myths.

The other thing that’s very fun about this shadow-puppet tradition is how subversive it still is. MacGregor points out that it’s much easier to censor tv and radio, communication channels which are central and federalized, than it is popular traditions like theater on a small scale (or the internet, for that matter). So, even to this day shadow puppet plays play a role in public discourse about current events in Indonesia—and the clever politician or ruler is the person who knows exactly how much slack to give them in the theater. You want them to parody you, only a real ruler is worth mocking. But of course you want a certain kind of mocking. Bima is so loveable and fun, so popular, there’s unlikely to be much satirical bite in a parody involving him.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

82. Miniature of a Mughal Prince (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Mughal India; or, Moslem and Hindu are Friends!
MacGregor begins his contemplation of this beautiful little painting, which wasn’t on display for some reason, with his standard questions about images, image-making, and the role of images in politics and control. Modern rulers, for instance, can effectively neuter each other in debate if they can catch their opponent in the grievous sin of FLIP-FLOPPING, which I guess means not always being 1000% sure that you’re always right about every question ever asked of you. How refreshing, then, this old Indian tradition that celebrates the religious leaders who advise rulers and nobility. In today’s west, we look with great suspicion upon any would-be ruler who seems capable of hearing advice on any topic, particularly advice from spiritual guides—whether Obama’s fiery preacher or Nancy Reagan’s astrologer.

It may be that this wasn’t such a big issue in this Indian tradition, where everybody kind of understood that these religious leaders, common features of the landscape, had attained spiritual distinction through renunciation. I think our modern western problem with rulers turning to religious leaders for advice is most of us have a hard time imagining religious leaders being anything other than a) devious Machiavellians aspiring to control, b) batshit insane, or c) both. The poor mendicant Hindu here can be trusted, if only because anyone living in this world was familiar with this poverty. It was everywhere, and even the Prince Siddartha-like (Moslem Mughal) prince depicted here knew all about it.

The Mughals established the Islamic empire in northern India at something like the same time that the Turks were establishing the Ottoman Empire some miles to the west. Racking my brains at first, to think of a contemporary western image where you have the proud, wealthy, powerful ruler going to the humble mendicant in search of advice and/or enlightenment, eventually I came to focus on King Lear.

Written we believe during the reign of King James I, King Lear doesn’t twist itself as easily into an allegory of contemporary Elizabethan politics as do (say) Macbeth or some of Shakespeare’s history plays. Based on Biblical sources, it does present an image somewhat congruent to MacGregor’s miniature, of acquisition of learning, when the king takes as his advisor the holy fool, poor mad Tom. What’s weird about this analogy is that Lear has in it so much pain and despair, even though that pursuit-of-wisdom plot may offer a hint of redemption, it seems unfair to compare it to the pretty Mughal miniature. Could the genius that created the ineffable beauty of the Taj Mahal also create the soul-searing sublimity (I don’t think the word ‘beauty’ is appropriate here) of King Lear?

Monday, December 19, 2011

81. Shi’a Religious Parade Standard (Iran, AD 1650-1700)

Shi’a Islam.
We’ve followed the history of Iran from a source of wealth and raw materials to Sumer and Ur, and their inheritors Babylon and Assyria, through the satraps of the great Persian empire, to the Zoroastrians who risked it all on the Sassanian empire, to (post-Mongol) the source of and market for Chinese porcelain aesthetics. Here in the early modern period, MacGregor is pointing out the widespread, liberal religious tolerance that was part of the Shi’a Iran contemporary with lots of religious persecutions and wars in Europe.

The ruler contemporary with Elizabeth I was Shah Abbas of the Safavid dynasty, a rival to the early Ottomans, who went so far as to build the Armenians a big, beautiful Christian (Orthodox) cathedral in Isfahan, which is (I guess—never been there, may never go unless they stop imprisoning American hikers) the most prominent city after Tehran. He also built a beautiful mosque in Isfahan for Shi’a Islam, which became the state religion of the Safavids. By the end of the Safavid rule, however, intolerance had become the way of things in that part of the world—and Europe was starting to relax a little.

As for the origins of Shi’a, or “Party of Ali” Islam, I guess this split goes back to the first generation after the prophet, when Mohammed’s daughter Fatima married Ali, who became the first Imam (instead of the fourth Caliph) back at the original split in Islam, in the 600s. According to MacGregor, they’ve since been identified with lots of suffering and martyrdom—he goes to the mosque and sees representations of the Twelve Imams, martyrs all and the last is still in hiding, like King Arthur, ready to come back and lead the world to the promised land someday. The object here, a big ceremonial sword-like thing that you put on a pole and got a religious body-builder to carry through the streets as part of a religious processional to your mosque, similarly commemorates the Imams. MacGregor underlines for us the irony of using a sword, a symbol of aggression, for a religion that is focused on personal suffering and martyrdom.

Friday, December 16, 2011

80. Pieces of Eight (Bolivia, AD 1573-1598)

International Finance.
Of all the bits of money in the British Museum, MacGregor admits that these pieces of eight have the most evocative name. He even plays a parrot from some Treasure Island movie saying “Pieces of eight, pieces of eight! Dead men tell no tales!” But then he gets off this romantic digression and points out that the important, world-history changing issue here is establishing a currency that would have value everywhere, all over the world, for the first time. There had been local banks, and precious valuables were always precious and valuable...but something is different in the early modern period, when silver coins, mined in Potosí (Bolivia), minted in the Spanish New World, and traded via the Phillipines (that colony named for King Philip II of Spain, Queen Elizabeth I’s enemy and Verdi’s Wotan) had the ability to trash China’s economy. Oh, and that their name—peso de ocho—eventually got shortened and became another, still familiar, currency, the peso.

You’ll notice they aren’t uniform in shape or design. I don’t think there really was much uniformity until much more recently; the six different coins here come from lots of different places: Indonesia, China, one from the Scottish coast (sank with the Spanish Armada), eventually even restamped in Australia. Once that modern, industrial, mechanized need for conformity and uniformity got established, I think we were in the nineteenth-century era of the battle between the gold and silver standards, Dorothy’s yellow brick road and Bryant’s cross of gold speech.

PS The proverbial wealth of Peru, where many of these coins were finished, is manifest in Da Ponte’s libretto for Così fan tutte, where Don Alfonso and the two sisters sing (at the end of the brilliant ‘magnet’ movement in the first act finale) “Ah, questo medico vale un Perù!” Ah, this doctor is as valuable as a Peru!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

79. Kakiemon Elephants (Japan, AD 1650-1700)

The Multi-National Corporation!
We’re now getting into the era when several of our principals repeat; the story associated with these beautiful elephants shares similarities with the stories of several objects we now know and love. Like Dürer’s German vision of an Indian rhino, what you’ve got here is a work of Japanese art representing a creature the Japanese had never seen, an Indian elephant (you can tell the type of elephant ‘cause of the ears and tusk). It’s done in porcelain, which as you remember from the David Vases the Chinese had developed with Iranian influence; the Japanese bought the secrets of how to make porcelain from the Koreans, who had smuggled it out of China (like the lady with the silkworms in her headdress)...because the Koreans and Japanese have different national schools and aesthetics from the Chinese, the art of porcelain-making developed slightly differently in those countries, as long ago did the art of roof-tile-makery. But this object really goes multi-national because of the first multi-national corporation, the Dutch East India Company, which has exclusive trading rights to Japan in that odd era of shoguns and samurais. (Japan’s isolationist policy, which we spoke about with regard to those ceremonial bronze mirrors, didn’t really ease up until 1853, by which time the Americans were coming to it from the east. Back when the only door to Japan was on the western seaboard, it was easier to keep it closed.) The Dutch traded these Japanese porcelain elephants, made in the strictly Japanese “Kakiemon” school of porcelain-makery, to England, where people were crazy for porcelain; along with other porcelain animals, they probably ended up decorating a mantlepiece on some rich Brit’s English country house.

It’s a lot of effort to go to for this luxury of all luxuries...particularly when you find out that learning the craft of making Kakiemon pottery requires an apprenticeship of 30-40 years! MacGregor tracked down a representative of the family who’s held the secrets of Kakiemon all these centuries, talked to him (with an interpreter) on the phone from Japan, and needless to say they’d like these priceless elephants back. Even in the 17th century, the value of these pieces, in terms of trade, would have been something like $10,000. So perhaps the moral of the story is, once your basic needs are met, you go to odd lengths, creating multi-national corporations and planet-spinning trade routes and life-long apprenticeships, in pursuit of pretty things that nobody really needs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

78. Double-Headed Serpent (Mexico, AD 1400-1600)

Spanish Destroy Aztecs!
This double-headed serpent is one of the most beautiful objects in the British Museum. It’s the main object, in our historical trajectory, representing Aztec culture, and it’s an example of how too much symbolism can get projected onto one object. One of MacGregor’s Aztec specialists speaks about the dual nature of most Aztec gods—like Shiva and Parvati in Hinduism, you have gods of duality, gods that are both male and female, winged serpents (Quetzalcoatl) representing both earth and sky, gods who stand for both life and death, creatures with two heads like the one in this object. And MacGregor wants it to represent dualities like the Old World and the New World, murderous friendship, modern Mexico with its dual European and mestizo citizenry. Whatever, it’s a gorgeous object and the encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma is indeed a turning point.

As usual, not to exonerate the Spanish...but the Aztecs could be pretty nasty. Like the Incas and lots of other meso-American cultures, they had both good (chocolate!) and bad (human sacrifice and lots of it!) And they had many enemies. The zillions of little bits of turquoise used to make this double-headed serpent came to Mexico City (sorry, Tenochtitlan), the capital, from as far away as Texas and Honduras. Most of their conquered territories didn’t like them very much—there was that whole matter of having to send slaves off to the capitol to be sacrificed en masse—and the Spanish exploited this when they got there, to weaken Aztec rule and take the place over. It sounds like it helped that many treated the Spanish as gods, initially, and that Moctezuma basically gave Cortés the key to the city when he first got there. The other thing that helped was smallpox, which slaughtered 90% of the indigenous people right away. And yet, since there were more people there to begin with—glorious, terrifying cities full of people—enough survived to mingle with the newcomers and give us the people who are there today, many with mixed native and European ancestry.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

77. Benin Plaque: the Oba with Europeans (Nigeria, AD 1500-1600)

Europe meets Africa!
Here’s a sculpture MacGregor uses to speak about two encounters between Europeans and Africans on African turf: the first, depicted in the sculpture, presumably around 1600, a peaceful exchange of trade and maybe ideas; and the second, in 1897, when this object was looted and taken back to England, a war in the service of empire and then, perhaps as terrible as the lives lost, trashing or denying a culture because of the insidious cultural residue of slavery.

Now, this is a neat work of art, there’s no denying that—the figures are carefully done, the symmetry is pleasing, the two European guys at the top with lots of hair and funny hats with feathers are kind of cool. So much so that, as with the Ife Sculpted Head, in 1900 the Europeans were baffled—what was this object doing in Nigeria? They were so racist at that time, so into their thing about the savage, barbarous ways of the Africans, that they couldn’t comprehend how such an object could have been created there. Although that’s a sad comment on the British scramble (against the French and Dutch and Portugese and, by the 19th century, the Belgians) for colonies in Africa, I think it’s an even sadder comment on the process of dehumanization. Presumably the Portugese traders depicted in this sculpture, the guys with the silly hats at the back, who traded the Nigerians the bronze they used to make this sculpture, presumably they weren’t so appalled and astonished by the rich culture in the court of the Oba, the king of this region of West Africa in the 16th century. But between 1600 and 1900, slavery happened...three hundred years in which white people around the world—yes, I know the Brits gave it up long before the Americans did, but the racism persisted there as long as it did here—worked their hardest, in thought and writing and teaching and culture, to dehumanize those they wanted or felt compelled by financial necessity to keep as slaves. “They” were savage, barbarous, etc., not quite human, lucky to have us to look after them and take care of them. A myth which developed simultaneously with the slave trade, as it grew into the 1800s. And myths, we’ve seen, are hard things to kill. One of the very pernicious things about the kind of dehumanizing myth we’re talking about here is that both sides may end up half-believing it, the oppressor as well as the oppressed. MacGregor’s Nigerian writer looks at this sculpture and it makes him think almost wistfully or with a kind of nostalgia for a time, before slavery became the main industry, when Nigeria (and lots of other parts of Africa) had functioning societies.

Monday, December 12, 2011

76. The Mechanical Galleon (Germany, AD 1585)

Ships! And German automatons.
This is an impressive object, not too far from the museum’s collection of old clocks, as I remember. It’s here in our history playing the role of the galleon, which changed history, as did all great advances in marine navigation in the 1400s and 1500s, by giving Europe the drop on the rest of the world. With their big ships the Europeans started the modern age. Modes of transport have obviously evolved since, but these big vessels made possible the creation of our world.

Now, this object is obviously not a 15th century galleon. (I found bits of one, at Portsmouth Historic Dockyards, the Mary Rose of Henry VIII—really a fascinating place to visit, and it’ll be better in the next year or two when they actually open the exhibit with what’s left of the ship. When I was there, between trips to the British Museum, the Mary Rose exhibit was only stuff that had been recovered from the wreck.) It’s an automaton, halfway between a puppet and a robot, made in Germany as a conversation piece, a centerpiece for the table of some early Renaissance German duke or princeling, some Holy Roman Emperor potentate. MacGregor conjectures that it was wound up and set to ‘sail’ back and forth across a dinner table, and I think it’s like one of those Swiss a certain point the captain, or the pope or somebody, comes out of the hold in miniature and tootles around and then heads back in. And since most of Germany is landlocked, it’s unlikely that anyone involved had ever been on a real galleon, or to the ocean, for that matter. But they understood that it was huge, that this discovery held the key to the future. It’s not clear what they felt about robots. More recently, German culture has demonstrated a complex fascination/terror with robots; it’s a big deal in the extremely Romantic work of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who was (I guess) writing science fiction in stories like “The Sandman,” the horror story which inspired the cutsey ballet Coppélia and the goofy Act 1 of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, or in the much more frank “Automata,” and I’m here, as spurious historian of German literature, to say that seductive robots are just as terrifying in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a hundred years later.

Sorry, that digression took me a long way away from our galleon and the spirit of new possibilities in transportation it celebrates. One last thought, a memory of an incomplete, unstaged play-fragment we had, years ago, at a since-discontinued festival of new plays hosted by ACT and Annex for several years: it was an extremely evocative scene, we were in the cabaret space in the ACT, not much light, no set, and only two actors: a Spanish conquistador-type, about to leave the next morning on his next trip, spending a last night at his crumbling ancestral castle at the edge of the sea, watching the sunset from a balcony set out over the very water, and the dark-haired Spanish beauty he was leaving behind—their failure to communicate the powerful emotions they were both feeling: his excitement, fear, sense of possibility and gravity at the start of the greatest adventure anyone could ever have, balanced by her need for him, vague hopes for his eventual return in success and inchoate fears about her own future. I went to a dozen plays or possible plays in about two days, but many years later that scene sticks in my head. An aspirational goal for historical drama—yes, it’s nice to represent history as accurately as possible so people learn a thing or two, yes it’s nice to entertain, yes it’s nice to reflect on current issues and events through the lens of a long time ago and far away...but you still need to grab us by the scruff of our souls and take us someplace real, on the deepest human level, to make us say “Hearing this play was an experience that changed me.”