Discussing some key objects in Japanese history last week brought to mind a recent curious phenomenon: histories told through 100 objects. And there are many of them.
The more ambitious include A History of the World in 100 Objects, a British Museum - BBC collaboration, The Dr Who History of the Universe in 100 Objects and The History of the world in 100 Modern Objects, (subtitled Middle Class Stuff, and Nonsense). There are histories of the WW1, the Third Reich and Germany, all using 100 objects.
Sports are popular: histories of cycling, cricket, baseball, sailing, Scottish football, and American sports, again using 100 objects. There are books on the Tudors, women, the church (in general) and The Music of Bristol Cathedral (in particular). Scotland Yard published one on 100 crime objects. There are books on birdwatching, retail, and space exploration, The University of Virginia and Sacramento City College. All have 100 objects to tell their story.
Two of them are worth looking at. Fintan O'Toole, journalist at the Irish Times, wrote A History of Ireland in 100 Objects in 2013, in a collaboration with the Royal Irish Academy and the National Museum of Ireland. Square in format, beautifully written, elegantly designed, it's 238 pages are as good as publishing gets.
The other is The History of Australia in 100 Objects by Toby Creswell, former editor of Rolling Stone and Juice magazines. Published in 2016, this seems to be the initiative of the publishers, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Books. It's larger and heavier, at 420 pages and, sad to say, it’s not so good.
The books differ in three ways, cumulatively positioning them at opposite ends of the spectrum,
The first is the writing. Fintan O’Toole is one of the great writers of today. His pieces in the Irish times are piercing, particularly his insights into the Trump presidency. He's a well-regarded polemicist, having written more than 20 books, and historian with a definitive work on the Irish rebellion (with Shane Hegarty). You may have heard him on Late Night Live with Phillip Adams. The one-page descriptions in A History of Ireland in 100 Objects are curious and epigrammatic.
Toby Creswell is a music journalist, seemingly without a track record in either history or objects. His best-known work is on 1001 songs. The descriptions in The History of Australia in 100 Objects are longer, windier and more prosaic. In contrast to O'Toole’s deft, exquisite prose Creswell’s writing seems more mediocre word-processing, intended for a school textbook. Hard to make some of these objects boring, but he manages it.
The second difference is the choice of objects. O’Toole relies on advice by the Museum and Royal Irish academy. The objects appear to have been chosen first for their intrinsic qualities, and then a history written with them. Creswell takes the opposite: it appears a history of Australia is written, and then objects found to fit that narrative.
The photography differs too: Irish objects are extricated from the surroundings to emphasise their singularity, their haptic sensibility. By contrast some of the illustrations in the Australian book seem slapdash, awkward and sometimes the surroundings are counterproductive.
The Irish objects start 5000 years ago, working through the millennia, dictated by the objects. Creswell only found three pre-white invasion objects worthy of study – where is the woomera or the rock art, the gunyah, the goondie, the worley? There is a treasure of indigenous objects, which should have been included.
Choosing the objects is debatable, full of personal preferences. But there are some lacunae, at least in comparison to the 30 objects discussed by ‘Plus One’ in Architecture and Design last year. Rather than ‘a pair of shears’, found in all countries with sheep, I would have preferred David Unaipon’s mechanical shears, from our great indigenous inventor (see your $50 bill).
Vegemite is there, but not the Hills Hoist or the Victa lawn mower, key objects in understanding the most suburban nation on earth, and how it got that way. Where is the ‘Esky’, as well as the ‘Coolgardie safe’ and our earliest air conditioning invention: vital objects in one of the hottest countries in the world. Or the Presto can, the Furphy water cooler, colorful and indestructible bank notes. Or the black box and the inflatable escape slide, objects critical to the success of Qantas.
The third measure is the object itself: the book. Every description of the 100 Irish objects is kept to one page, in tight elegant font, with its image opposite handsomely laid out. Also note that the object images are back-to-back to lessen the bleed through onto the white text. Here are three pages:
The Australian version is not as disciplined: the text rambles, unnecessarily stretched as the font is fatter, wider spaced, and thus awkwardly arranged so that often the object does not appear near it's heading. It's hard to follow. Here are three pages from that book.
Two last things: the Irish book has an index (to help research), and a guide to where the objects can be found, and even a chart to log your journey in finding the 100 objects. Not in the Australian version. And the titles differ: one is ‘A History…’ the other ‘The History…’ Guess which is which.
In Australia, with our Irish heritage, we need to know more about the Irish objects. And now, with our growing understanding of indigenous issues, we desperately need 'A History of Indigenous Australia in 100 Objects'.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].