In 1770, Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy landed in what is today known as Botany Bay on the east coast of Australia. He, along with several others accompanying him, maintained detailed records of the expedition. So, we know that on April 29, when he saw two Aboriginals approach the British team in an unwelcoming manner, he shot at them. What we do not know is the Aboriginal version of the same encounter. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, asks us to consider the shield made of red mangrove wood — the one the Aboriginal dropped as he ran away after his first experience of a gunshot — for answers.

Objects allow us to reconstruct the past when there is no textual source to guide us. It is the governing principle behind museums, even if not their founding one. The shield travelled to England with Captain Cook and now belongs to the British Museum in London. Even as it stands mutely in a temperature-controlled room, it acts as a testament to an Aboriginal way of life that was violently disrupted. It was one of the objects featured in A History of the World in 100 Objects , the 2010 radio series by BBC Radio and British Museum.

As part of the series, which was later compiled into a book and an exhibition by the same name, MacGregor and his then colleagues at the British Museum selected 100 objects from the museum’s collection. The objects ranged from the beginning of human history nearly two million years ago to the present; a mix of everyday things as well as great works of art, they represented the world as equally as possible.

The selection does not offer an impartial view of history by any stretch of the imagination — the reason the Aboriginal shield was given so much importance was ultimately that Cook and his fellow explorers wrote so much about it in their diaries. But it gives us a glimpse of how complex history is, how nothing — not even time — can be plotted on a straight line.

The Sudanese slit drum, says MacGregor, is the perfect example of the many tongues an object can speak in and of. The drum was made in 1850, in the shape of a calf for a powerful chief in the region where the present-day South Sudan meets the Congo. When Egyptian slave traders raided the region, they took this drum to Khartoum, then the biggest slave market, and inscribed it with Islamic designs. In 1898, when Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s army took over the city, he added the emblem of the British crown to the drum and presented it to Queen Victoria. With every new carving, the drum sang with a different voice. For MacGregor, the instrument is able to tell the story of tribal Africa, its relationship with the Arabic north, and European colonisation with an immediacy that no text can.

Such engagement with objects, which was made popular by British anthropologist Nicholas J Saunders, who focused on articles from World War I, has allowed many to reclaim their past. Closer home, for instance, the Partition Museum that was inaugurated last year in Amritsar and artist Aanchal Malhotra’s book Remnants of a Separation, are attempts at breaking down a grand political event in the history of the Indian subcontinent into an individual’s search for a new home by looking at the things they chose to carry with them.

When tinged with nostalgia, objects falsify the past. But when we are lost, they provide a secure point of return. They become symbols, a kind of shorthand to remind us where we came from and where we are headed.

This is the raison d’être of the latest exhibition ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’ at the National Museum in Delhi. The exhibition, which is an offshoot of A History of the World in 100 Objects , begins with a hand-axe from 1.7 million years ago found in Tamil Nadu and ends with works by contemporary Indian artists. Using about 200 objects — coins, inscriptions, paintings, sculptures, textiles — it makes visible the exchange of goods and ideas between the Indian subcontinent and the world, allowing us to have a more holistic view of the development of our culture and civilisation.

Our more recent history falls under the section ‘Quest for Freedom’. There’s the startling photograph titled ‘Aftermath of the Mutiny in Secundrabagh, Lucknow’. Taken in April 1858, months after the Indian rebellion, the image depicts a courtyard littered with human bones. About 2,000 rebels were killed in that location. While the British were buried, the Indians were not.

Another potent image that stands out is of the preamble to the Indian Constitution. Handwritten in English with illustrations by artists from Santiniketan, it has words such as “sovereign, democratic, republic” written in big bold letters. Most of us do not know what lies in this book beyond this introductory page. Yet, whenever we are lost as a nation, it is this object, this work of art, that we come back to. Even after decades, our forefathers’ dreams are palpable in it. The curator’s cautionary note next to it reads: “[the Constitution] controls every Indian’s life, but is also dependent on every Indian being vigilant in seeing that the freedoms it secures are maintained.”


Blessy Augustine


Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in New Delhi

Twitter: @blessyaugust