If you were to choose one object to symbolize the past year, I’m guessing you’d pick the mask. The mask, in all its forms and designs, is omnipresent, a key part of our lives wherever we live on this planet. And we are told continually that they will help save lives.
Some might pick the COVID-19 virus itself, that beautiful yet deadly invisible threat to us all.
Or perhaps toilet paper. Though, to be fair, that just symbolized panic, at the start of the madness. A fleeting motif.
The British Museum and the BBC embarked on a fascinating project ten years ago to select the 100 objects that would symbolize the history of the planet. They were all artifacts in the British Museum collection, such as an African throne, a credit card compliant with Sharia law, a Suffragette-defaced penny, a North American buckskin map, a Ming banknote and the Rosetta Stone. Random, yet fascinating.
The intent of The History of the World in 100 Objects was to tell the world’s story through actual things rather than words.
The former director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor did an interesting BBC podcast this week, inviting a small panel to suggest objects that would define the past decade and become the 101st object.
I know we have all been focused on this past year, but the past decade has been tempestuous. Ten years of turbulence and tragedy. With political upheaval, environmental crisis, wars and pandemics. A man in the White House upsetting the equilibrium, destabilizing and demolishing anything that got in his way. Fake news? Well, there was plenty of that around, but not so much in the mainstream media. More of it online and in Trump’s head.
The pandemic, when all is said and done, may be the biggest thing to happen to the world in most of our lifetimes, but will just be a blip in the history of the planet. Right now it consumes us, as it should, and it might have changed the world somewhat, but likely not irrevocably. We all expect to get somewhere near the old normal in late 2021.
What the pandemic has done is shown how fragile and vulnerable we are as people. Not the invincibles we thought we were. Or, as Oscar Wilde noted, “I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.”
The 101st Object panel suggested various objects that defined the past ten years. One suggested the camera phone because it had allowed just about everyone in the world to be able to record the world around them. And this has revealed so much about our world, positive and negative.
In North America and around the world we can bear witness to racial injustice, police violence through the lenses of ordinary people. In the past, only photojournalists shot news. Look at our own TV news today. Dashcam footage, shaky cell phone images – our phones have recorded everything from schoolyard bullies to amazing acts of courage. From George Floyd to someone just the other week being rescued from a surging river on Vancouver Island. The camera phone has become a key part of our lives and allowed individuals to become more powerful in recording the events around them.
That’s what I’d probably pick as the symbol of our times. The phone camera. Plus, you know, it takes fantastic pictures of my grandkids.
Zoom also got a vote for bringing the world together. Sir David Attenborough, one of the panelists, said Zoom is going to become even more important in the future if we are to fight climate problems and other global issues.
“We really have to become one nation, the whole globe. Internationalism is the crucial thing if we’re going to solve the world’s problems.”
Migration, with millions escaping oppression, particularly in Syria and Africa was also considered one of the most disturbing issues of the past decade. This was encapsulated by a sculpture by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj, of a flotilla of small craft, made out of bicycle mudguards, each crammed with a burned matchsticks, a desperate symbol of those who had tried, and often failed to make it to freedom across treacherous seas.
Matchsticks in an old mudguard engaged the emotions of MacGregor because they symbolized the despair, fragility and vulnerability of the thousands who tried to escape the torment of their lives.
Attenborough said the biggest challenge for the world continues to be climate change. “The readings from the Arctic this summer have been more alarming than they have ever been …if the Arctic ice cap continues to melt at the rate it’s doing, then the whole world is in trouble from every point of view.
“We’ve built many of our cities on coastlines because they were ports and they are within a few inches of the average ocean level so our cities would disappear.”
How to find an artifact that would represent that threat? In the museum’s Arctic landscape there is something that resembles a Scottish cairn, a number of stones put together as a sculpture based on stone piles in Nunavut, called Silent Messenger. It’s a navigation technique and these cairns also mark a good area for food. It helps all generations. And it has a small hole in one of the walls that looks to the future. It represents hope and survival. And the passing of knowledge to the future.
The mask had its proponents because it was not only a symbol of safety and fellowship but also of protest. There was a suggestion that one mask in particular could be a symbol. A Black Lives Matter mask with I Can’t Breathe written on the front.
All these objects captured moments in time, our time, which validates the whole idea of museums. The objects speak to us through the years.
In the end, MacGregor picked the small boats because they denoted the perilousness of human life, and that is perhaps the biggest lesson we have learned this past decade.
We are all on a perilous journey.
All in the same boat. Driven by fear and guided by hope. Here’s to a better year – and decade – ahead.
Ian Haysom is a journalist and writer based on Vancouver Island.