2 million years of history: Behind the scenes of the NMA’s new exhibition

9 Posted by - 27 October 2016 - Events, Feature stories

A landmark exhibition from the British Museum has arrived in Canberra — and tells the fascinating story of human history through 100 priceless objects. In this story from the Spring 2016 edition of Inside HistoryCassie Mercer offers a glimpse of what you can expect to see at this National Museum of Australia exhibition.

It is, as the National Museum of Australia (NMA) says, the story of us. Reflecting power and prestige, conquests and downfall, society and secrets.

There are everyday objects that show how our ancestors lived, as well as artefacts that represent the power of civilisation: where we have come from, what we have been through, and how we have been influenced by the world around us — and, in turn, left our mark on the world itself.

A History of the World in 100 Objects, an adaptation of a widely-acclaimed 2010 BBC / British Museum radio series of the same name, is an exhibition that uses 100 objects from the British Museum’s collection to explore human history from two million years ago to the present day.

Head of the Roman emperor Augustus, originally attached to a bronze statue. Coins and statues were the primary means the emperors used to spread their images. From c.27–25 BC and discovered in Meroë, Sudan. All images courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Head of the Roman emperor Augustus, originally attached to a bronze statue. Coins and statues were the primary means the emperors used to spread their images. From c.27–25 BC and discovered in Meroë, Sudan. All images courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Now on at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, A History of the World in 100 Objects takes the visitor on a journey from our prehistoric origins, through the development of agriculture, the first cities and empires, and ancient Rome; the evolution of religion; trade and invasion; and the industrial revolution, right up to today. All through physical, man-made objects crafted by countless creators in various epochs and cultures, for a whole host of different purposes.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically in eight sections. Highlights include an African stone chopping tool, dated to a staggering 1.8–2 million years ago — a marker of early human ingenuity — and a pandanus basket from much closer to home: western Arnhem Land.

Then there is the famous Assyrian clay Flood Tablet from what is now Iraq, inscribed with the story of a great flood and an ark which is regarded as a pre-Christian version of the Noah’s Ark story.

Also featured is Albrecht Dürer’s celebrated print The Rhinoceros from 1515, which had a profound impact on art (despite the artist never seeing the animal himself). This woodcut printing heralded the start of mass production.

Some of the world’s first coins from western Turkey, used more than 2,500 years ago, are also showcased, as is a Victorian-era tea set associated with Queen Adelaide.

Fragments from a harem wall painting in Samarra, Iraq, likely depicting slave girls, c.800–900 AD. Harem girls were often trained poets and musicians as well as wives and concubines.

Fragments from a harem wall painting in Samarra, Iraq, likely depicting slave girls, c.800–900 AD. Harem girls were often trained poets and musicians as well as wives and concubines.

National Museum of Australia Director Dr Mathew Trinca is excited to host the exhibition.

“These rare objects from around the world challenge our notions of human history and throw new light on how we shaped the world in which we live — and how we continue to shape it,” explains Dr Trinca.

For Dr Belinda Crerar, curator of A History of the World in 100 Objectsthese artefacts reveal more than we can imagine.

“For me, the most fascinating aspect of this exhibition is its unusual approach to history, using objects rather than texts. By looking closely at the things people made and used, we gain access to those parts of our shared past that were never recorded in literature, as well as cultures that never developed the need for writing,” says Dr Crerar.

The objects in the exhibition represent a vast range of materials — from stone to gold and clay to plastic. They vary in size, from a large Egyptian sculpture to a small yet exquisite gold llama from Peru.

Some were made to impress and be put on proud display, admired and preserved; others are practical, seemingly mundane objects — yet no less fascinating — used in everyday life, and in some cases even discarded. (Though not, fortunately for history lovers everywhere, forever.)

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