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In my previous post I referred to what I’m calling (for lack of a better term) “object books”–books that show objects and tell about them. These books serve as virtual mini-museums, displaying objects selected by their author/curator for their abilities to evoke and illuminate particular times and places. I’d like to present three of them.

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, the director of The British Museum, is a fascinating read and fun to browse.Image

MacGregor selected 100 objects from the Museum’s holdings as prompts for his stories and expositions about world history. And what wonderful objects he chose (and could choose), ranging from the Rosetta Stone to Hokusai’s The Great Wave. LW, being an amateur shadow puppeteer, is particularly delighted at the inclusion of an Indonesian shadow puppet among the 100 objects. However, she wished MacGregor had expanded the history of shadow-making beyond Indonesia to its earliest origins, when people made the first “movies” by casting shadows by campfire, and on to the present, when people spend much of their time staring at shadows on screens and walls.  

Shown below is an Indonesian shadow puppet toy theater that LW’s niece found at a flea market. One of its puppets looks something like “Bima,” the character MacGregor describes in his book.Image

And, since I love visuals, here are two pictures from a rehearsal of one of LW’s toy theater shadow-shows. I will let you guess the story. (Hint: the photos were taken before she affixed antennae to the characters in the first picture.)

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But back to the books. Last summer, in a used bookstore in Montreal, LW came upon another object book: The Museum Called Canada – 25 Rooms of Wonder by Charlotte Gray. This book, published in 2004, was designed to suggest an imaginary museum of real objects drawn from a variety of collections throughout Canada. The spine of the book resembles the kind of labeled repository box one might find in the bowels of a museum used to safe-keep items such as . . . the palm prints of the Dionne Quintuplets? (Which are shown on p. 505.)Image

Photographs at the beginning of this book escort the reader up a flight of stairs, through a set of double doors, to an elevator, and on to a tour of 25 “rooms” created to organize the numerous objects that reflect Canadian history. Unfortunately, with apologies to her Canadian friends, LW found the rooms to be overstuffed and a little—dare I say it– dull? Well, she did learn that Pablum was invented in Toronto and that Paul Anka comes from Ottawa. (I, myself, was surprised that the book mentions so few of Canada’s greatest exports—its entertainers. Paul Anka but no Neil Young or Joni Mitchell? And none of its great comedians and comic actors beyond Wayne & Shuster?) I suspect LW found the idea and the design of this book more interesting than much of its content—I know I did.

Last week an event at the New-York Historical Society promoted a new Show and Tell book, The Civil War in 50 Objects. LW was there. She wanted to hear a talk by the book’s author, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, and historian Eric Foner, who wrote the book’s introduction, and to get her book signed (to possibly capture a few atoms of Civil War scholar mana). Similar in style to the British Museum book, this book displays objects from the vast collections of the New-York Historical Society that connect with the American Civil War. Some of these, such as the child-sized slave shackles, need little exposition. Other objects elicit the kinds of anecdotes and lesser-known stories that are missed when histories focus exclusively on battles and military matters. Although the 50 objects chosen manage to cover a wide range of Civil War history, the book still leans New York-centric. But, then, so does the nation.

The book’s title page, with its mana-laden autographs, is shown below, along with the toy Civil War hats LW keeps in commemoration of the Great Civil War Christmas of 1960, an event which will be recalled in some future post.

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The idea behind this blog is, of course, quite similar in concept to these books: to use representative objects—in my case, books—as portals to worlds and prompts for stories. It’s an interesting exercise: Which objects (or books) would you choose to tell a history of your life? 

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