The humanities are currently experiencing what’s been called a ‘material turn’ that is in some ways comparable to the linguistic turn that animated the academy half a century ago. Then it was language that commanded attention, and appeared to constitute a primary ‘reality’; now the focus is on physical objects, and what they can tell us about the world in which we live. Within certain humane disciplines – art history, archaeology, museum studies – objects have always loomed large, and it is therefore not surprising that a leading figure in the present field should be the distinguished director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, whose brilliant study, A History of the World in 100 Objects (2011), has deservedly won both popular and scholarly acclaim.
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