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.