It's dark, like entering a cave. The space seems very deep, the dimensions obscure, as if they are a reflection of the vast and barely imaginable dimensions of time that this exhibition tried to encompass.
I try to orient myself - which way to go? The objects are all in huge glass boxes, and there is a numbering system, but the arrangement is not linear. There is a lot of explanatory writing, both general information about the civilisations which are represented here, and specific information about each object. I have about an hour, before we are meeting L. for coffee. An hour is about as long as I can concentrate on an intense delivery of input of any kind. It's as long as most university lectures, as long as my counselling sessions used to be. I could spend the whole hour reading the information and barely glance at the objects, but this seems pointless. Without the information though, what meaning can the objects have?
I soon find myself thrown across continents and through vast spans of time. First, there is an Egyptian mummy case, intricately painted, which is itself covered with information for those ancient people who once filed past and gazed on it, wondering if they should be reading the hieroglyphs or reflecting on the mummy, or on the person who the mummy used to be, or on their own mortality. Then I'm looking at a basket woven by Aboriginal people some time in the early twentieth century. The intriguing thing is that it looks exactly the same as the one in a Northern Territory rock painting from around 20,000 years ago. The painting is arresting, (well, the picture of it is, you'd have to go the Northern Territory to see the actual painting on the rock.) A woman is running or leaping forwards with a spear, the basket somehow attached to her forehead, and flying out behind her. I look back at the early twentieth century basket - it has quite finely woven strings at the top, so yes, you could tie it round your head. The strings alone are more skilfully made than anything I could achieve. The sort of thing your mother or grandmother has to patiently show you how to do.
There is a lyre, found in Ur in Iran, in 2500 BE. (Oh, they're not using BC and AD any more? When did this change? Why didn't anyone tell me?) It is a beautiful thing, adorned by a shining gold, and very appealing bull's head. It was excavated by Leonard Woolley - I'm pleased that I remember this name. There is an old black and white photograph of him kneeling and scraping away at the dirt around the lyre. He's wearing his respectable English hat. Most of this instrument has been restored - of course, how could the wood, the strings, have survived so long? Even the gold bull's head was 'crushed' when Woolley found it. I can't tell which parts are the authentic, ancient parts. Does it matter?
The line between 'genuine' and 'copy' seems blurred in different ways with different objects. The bust of Sophocles is a Roman copy of a Greek original. The Roman stone sarcophagus from about 260 CE, was taken to England in the eighteenth century, where it was converted for use as a fountain. The spectacular North American frock coat uses traditional decorative motifs and materials but is modelled after contemporary fashion of the 1900's when it was made. What is 'genuine'? What can authentic mean when people are constantly trading things, repairing them, copying them, improving them? If the curators had substituted replicas of the ancient gold coins here, for insurance purposes or whatever, how would that have affected my experience? Did any Romans gazing on the bust of Sophocles feel fobbed off because it wasn't "the real thing'?
Some shards of pottery washed up on a beach in Tanzania. There is a map which shows all the different places, from China to the Middle East, that they originated from, and I puzzle over it. Were they all found together? Did they come from the same vessel, or were they washed up at different times? What does it mean that they were found on a beach, where the ground shifts constantly, and they could never have had a permanent resting place? I stare at these broken shards, trying to extract some meaning from them, but their message eludes me. I think of the little broken pieces of old pottery that I occasionally dig up when I'm gardening, bits of the things that the people who lived here in the late nineteenth century used to use. Even the story that they tell is obscure to me. So much is forgotten and lost, even after just a few decades, when living memory has gone. Even living memory is unreliable.
I want something, some thought, some feeling, that makes sense of this random and disparate collection of artefacts. What do they teach? What do they show? Do they really show 'The History of the World'?
Certainly, they show that humanity has been active on the planet for a very long time, principally, making things. Thousands of years ago, someone sat in a cave with a rock they'd chosen because it was flat and sort of shaped like a bison, and drew just inside the edge of it a beautiful and evocative picture of a bison. Through all of these broken, reconstructed, unique, isolated, rare and random objects, we get glimpses of the people who made the things, of human relationships and ideas and feelings.
A samurai sword, a thousand years old, razor sharp, shining steel in a perfect curve. Japanese society of a thousand years ago feels very remote, but something here excites me. It's the skill of the craftsman, the persistence, the patience, the determination on excellence, the passed down knowledge of how to do it, the craftsman's respect and love for the materials and techniques of his trade, or his art.
People have always wanted to make beautiful things, perfect things, things that are better than what anyone else has made and which challenge their skill and persistence. They want to make things that last beyond their own lives. Some of these objects, like the bronze Arabian hand, are directly linked to people's desire to somehow connect with an afterlife; all of them have achieved immortality for their makers.