The Next Chapter

Randy Boyagoda on telling Canada's history through objects

Columnist Randy Boyagoda talks about two books that examine the power that physical objects hold in history: Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects and Jane Urquhart's A Number of Things: Stories About Canada Told Through 50 Objects.
Jane Urquhart's A Number of Things looks at the 150-year-old history of Canada through inanimate objects. (Patrick Crean Editions/University of Toronto)

Objects are a fundamental part of human history. They possess the power to creatively tell stories that explain our past, define our future and can carry an emotional significance that trickles down from generation to generation. 

The Next Chapter columnist Randy Boyagoda discusses two books that explore history through objects — the extraordinary, the unusual, the mundane — that have undoubtedly shaped the world we live in: Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects and Jane Urquhart's A Number of Things: Stories About Canada Told Through 50 Objects. This interview originally aired on April 10, 2017.

An object's deeper history

Objects give us a new angle into the past. I have a little orangey-red rock on my desk. That rock came from a cave that's about 1,000 feet behind the ancestral home of the Boyagoda family in Boyagoda, Sri Lanka. The rock comes from the cave where the first member of my family actually lived in the early 19th century. There's a story to this rock, and every now and then I'll just pick it up and I'll think about how much history has passed during this rock's life.

Connecting past and present

In A Number of Things, Jane Urquhart takes an autobiographical, historical and cultural approach all at the same time. Each object invites from Urquhart a kind of meditation on the object itself, a kind of situating of it in a deep past and then a connection made to the present, whether through historical retellings and evocations or even drawing on her own family, her own  immigrant history into this country. Each of her meditations is accompanied by a pencil block drawing by Scott McKowen. They are these very beautiful black and white, very precise drawings of each of these objects. It creates a nice kind of unity through the whole book as opposed to 50 different splashy photographs or historical recreations.

Neil MacGregor is the director of the British Museum. (Penguin Random House)

The strange and the familiar

Neil MacGregor does a great job of not choosing the conventional great historical objects of the past, but random things — either really strange or really familiar. I'll give you two examples because they match so well. One would be a fourth-century coin bearing the face of Alexander the Great. He does this interesting take on currency and the way in which currency created a sense of community and even nationalism 1,600 years ago. And then later in the book, there's a gold card, and then he tells a whole other story about credit cards. What he's able to do is defamiliarize such a familiar object like a credit card by virtue of inviting us to make a connection between that object and something like a coin that's 1,600 years old.

Randy Boyagoda's comments have been edited and condensed.