History of the World in 100 objects

Abu Dhabi's Manarat Al Saadiyat hosts fascinating exhibition from The British Museum

Bird-Shaped Pestle 6,000-2,000BCE
Bird-Shaped Pestle 6,000-2,000BCE
An Egyptian coffin shows how much objects can teach us
An Egyptian coffin shows how much objects can teach us
The Knowledge
Arabian Bronze Hand (100-300CE)
Arabian Bronze Hand (100-300CE)
Olduvai Handaxe (1.2-1.4m years old)
Olduvai Handaxe (1.2-1.4m years old)
Statue of Ramesses II (1,280BCE)
Statue of Ramesses II (1,280BCE)
Statue of Mithras (100-200CE)
Statue of Mithras (100-200CE)
Early Victorian Tea Set (1840-1845CE)
Early Victorian Tea Set (1840-1845CE)

For the next 100 days, Manarat Al Saadiyat will play host to a stunning collection of objects, plotting the evolution of civilisation across the globe. TOAD takes a sneak peek at the ambitious History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition.

The cultural district on Sadiyaat Island continues to impress with its vision to become a global centre for art and educational exhibitions. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is still on schedule to open next year, with the Zayed National Museum expected to open in 2016 and the Guggenheim the following year.

But culture vultures don’t have to wait until then to get their fill of the Saadiyat experience, because the Manarat Al Sadiyaat gallery is already playing host to international collections, and this month is no exception.

A History of the World in 100 Objects, in collaboration with The British Museum, follows the format of the 2010 BBC Radio 4 broadcast of the same name, where 100 individual items were explained to reveal the progress of human civilisation since early man. Manarat Al Saadiyat’s unique collection of 100 objects tell the same story, and will be displayed for 100 days.

Objects not only tell us an incredible amount about the way that civilisations lived, survived and flourished, but also provide tangible links to human beings across all of time and space. This is the crux of the exhibition: a demonstration of how people are interlinked, historically and temporally, and how that heritage has sculpted the world we see today.

The exhibition itself is an impressive space, with each artefact laid out in chronological order along atmospherically lit, spacious walkways. The exhibition is divided into eight periods of time, each of which focuses on the ideologies and priorities that shaped the interactions and civilisations of that age.

At the entrance to the exhibition is an Egyptian mummy coffin of a woman called Shepenmehyt. Beautiful as this object is, it is not one of the 100 that make up the core of the exhibition, but instead a visual reminder of what objects from history can teach us about how the past and the present are interwoven. And although the coffin is clearly made for a woman, the mummy found inside (which is not part of the display) is that of a man who still has an embalming tool lodged in his head.

We commence our journey through the history of the human race with the development of functional objects that made human existence easier, particularly in the sourcing and consumption of food. The section, titled ‘Development’ (2,000,000-2,500BCE) demonstrates the enhancement of chopping tools and, much later, how pottery enabled us to obtain more food and better quality nutrients, which in turn led to the development of body and brain function.

Moving forward, we find ourselves at the next stage of development, labelled ‘The First Cities’ (3,000-700BCE). Following huge strides in agricultural and survival adaptation, people no longer solely focused their energy on staying alive, but also on how they could improve the quality of their existence. This includes the introduction of the written word, primarily as a method of administrating large groups of individuals now living together, and a degree of focus on leisure time as well as survival.

The 700BCE-100CE era is named ‘Power and Philosophy’. Each object here demonstrates the first period in history when humans began to explore the possibility of expanding their territory, wealth and powerbase. The ambition to acquire and maintain power is evident here, whether by force or by diplomacy and co-existence.

From the period 100-800CE, the story of the human race shifts again from expansion and establishment to religion and beliefs – both those that are recognisable today and those no longer prominent in global culture. This overlaps chronologically with the following section of exhibition, named ‘Trading and Invading’ (300-1100CE). It is in this period of human civilisation that we see small degrees of global interconnections, both through lengthened trade routes including the Silk Road that stretched from China to the Mediterranean and across the Indian Ocean, and military expansion, particularly from the Scandinavian region.

‘Innovation and Adaption’ (900-1550CE), ‘Encounters and Connections’ (1550-1800CE) and ‘The World of our Making’ (1800-today) explain how the world has developed over the past 1,000 years become to the globalised economic arena we live in today. This includes the first contact, trade and conflicts between Europeans and the civilisations of Africa and the Americas. The final objects in the exhibition explore how the conflicts of the 21st century have shaped today’s world of total globalisation, culminating in a very recognisable object that has links to every inhabited continent in the world.

To explain the evolution in society in just 100 objects seems an impossible task, but this collection at Manarat Al Saadiyat will impress you. This fascinating story told through the possessions of ordinary people, warmongers and nobility of the past, is one not to be missed.
A History of the World in 100 Objects is on display until August 1. Open daily 9am-8pm. Manarat Al Saadiyat, Sadiyaat Island. www.saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae.

Sneak preview

Take a look at some key exhibits

Olduvai Handaxe
1.2-1.4 million years old

The second oldest artefact in the exhibition, the Olduvai Handaxe is one of the most fascinating objects in the collection. It is clearly identifiable to the layman as a tool for hunting, making it a symbol for the period in human evolution when people began to fashion implements that would aid survival techniques.

The method with which this tool was made (imagining and creating a sculpted shape from a single unformed piece of raw material) utilises the part of the brain that is synonymous with speech, meaning that human beings from this period in history had probably developed language beyond the rudimentary communication techniques of other animals.

Minoan Worshipper

The Minoans were an extremely prosperous civilisation throughout the Bronze Age, in the main because of their location on the island of Crete which was well defended by sea, meaning that the islanders were rarely at war. This afforded them time and energy to become one of the most advanced civilisations in the world at that time, particularly in the craftsmanship skills of their artistic pursuits.

This Minoan figure standing at prayer is a beautiful and interesting artefact (depicting how Minoan people would leave statues in the temple to pray on their behalf while they went about their daily lives), but perhaps more interesting is the origin of the materials that the figure is made from. Despite its importance in Minoan culture, bronze was not made from local materials; the copper was imported from Cyprus and the tin would have come from Turkey or Afghanistan, showing the Minoans to be the fulcrum of a newly established trading world.

Japanese Samurai Blade

Medieval cultures worldwide are identifiable by a distinctive high point or unique facet, and one of the most famous from this period is that of Samurai Japan. The Samurai were the warrior nobility class that ruled Japan for hundreds of years, distinctive by their cultural imperatives and customs (including the manner in which blades should be displayed), which still survive in the aesthetics of Japanese culture today.

One of the reasons that this artefact defines a point in a civilisation is that it was signed by the maker. This is an early example of craftsmen putting their names to particular objects in Japan, indicating that provenance had become an indicator of value for functional items.

Royal Game of Ur

Found at the royal cemetery at Ur in Iraq, one of the largest cities discovered from this period of world history, this is one of the most famous artefacts in the exhibition. It is important in tracking the development of human history because it indicates that people were now prepared to invest time, expense and resources into leisure.

This is another indicator of the existence of trading routes in the ancient world. The lapis lazuli used in the making of the game is from Afghanistan, the seashells come from the Gulf and the red limestone is from India, showing that even millennia ago, humans were thinking about and engaged in trading across huge expanses of land.

Arabian Bronze Hand

This Arabian bronze hand was probably cast from life as one of the fingers is broken. The cast is thought to have been made by a man called Ta’lab, and the inscription asks for a local god named Ta’lab Riyam to provide good fortune and health to the province and people of what is now part of Yemen. As well as being a local Arabian artefact demonstrating the history of religion in the area, this is also one of the original 100 objects from the BBC radio series.

The show goes on

And now for the 101st object…

A bonus component of the exhibition is the 101st object, a foot-controlled car for disabled drivers. It was designed by 23-year-old Emirati student Reem Al Marzouqi, and is a reminder to everyone who visits the exhibition that the journey of human evolution is far from finished. The inventors and artists of today will continue to pave the road civilisations will take into the future.

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