Sunday, October 30, 2011

British Museum's ‘History of the World in 100 Objects' Ignores Jewish Contribution to Civilization

From the NY Sunday Times arts section today, I learned about the British Museum's ‘History of the World in 100 Objects,’ "...a project so audacious that it took 100 curators four years to complete it. The goal: to tell the history of the world through 100 objects culled from the British Museum’s sprawling collections...These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior."

And yet, and yet, you will find only one object that refers, ever so tangentially, to a Jewish presence in the world as we know it. It is this, an astroblade:

Here is a description from the BBC, which collaborated with the BM in this project: "An astrolabe is a scientific instrument used to work out the time of day using the sun or the stars. It could also be used for astrological horoscopes and mathematical calculations. Astrolabes were first made around 150 BC in Greece. They were further developed by Islamic scholars and were often used for determining the exact direction of Mecca. The astrolabe finally came into Western Europe via Spain, which was conquered by Islamic forces in AD 711.

"Who was this astrolabe made for?

"This astrolabe is inscribed with words in hebrew and Arabic, indicating it was probably made for a Jewish scholar in Spain. Christian forces had reconquered the majority of Spain from the Islamic Caliphate by AD 1238. Spain, however, retained a mixed population of Christians, Jews and Muslims that coexisted in relative harmony. Muslim and Jewish scholars even worked together, translating the works of Aristotle and other Greek authors into Latin. These works had been preserved in Arabic translations but had been largely forgotten in medieval Europe."

What is interesting to me is that among the 100 objects from over 2 million years ago to 2010 and including, naturally, a good selection from antiquity -- Egypt, Greece, Rome -- and world religion -- Islam, Christianity, Hinduism -- one reference to a Jewish contribution to our civilization appears and only in relation to the Islamic Golden Age.

It could be, and I've only started researching it, that the BM does not have much of a selection of Judaica, but I doubt it. So I was heartened to read this comment on the BBC's site just as I began to get paranoid about my tendency to find, shall we say, a lack of respect for Judaism lurking in many a British closet:

"At 22:33 on 1 November 2010, cairojew wrote:
i start with an apology of sorts, it will no doubt come as no suprise that i, a jew am writing with a complaint about the bizzare lack of a specifically jewish object in your history of the world. the only mention of jew is with the hebrew astrolabe a scientific instrument which has equal billing with christian spain and moorish spain. why is there no reference to any one item which could have looked at the jewish contribution to the i have to suggest something as radical as monotheism or as grounbreaking as the 10 commandments. i'm sorry that a jew has to bring this up. how much pleasure it would have given me to have discovered a 15 minute slot to the contribution of the world by my people. helas as the french would say, it is not to be."


  1. Maybe I am being self centered, but it is hard for me to believe that Jewish contribution can be eliminated from a history of the world. If there were only 10 artifacts, you would think that 1 or 2 would be strongly related to Jews. There might be something that I am missing, but I can't imagine anything but anti-semitism being the cause of such an omission.


  2. I think Stan is right

  3. I thought I was crazy, because I also noticed a lack of Jewish objects as I've been listening to this series on WNYC in NY. The Brits are known for their anti-Semitism, so there is no other explanation IMHO. Surely, they could have found one object that represented a Jewish contribution to the world.


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