Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

CIVILISATIONS

  • Written by  Olivia Edward
  • Published in Books
CIVILISATIONS
18 Jul
2018
by Mary Beard and David Olusoga • Profile Books • £15 (hardback), £11.99 (eBook)

When the BBC screened Civilisations earlier this year, it was all about the extra ‘s’. Whereas Kenneth Clarke’s original 1969 series, Civilisation (singular), was one wealthy, white man’s view of a very Western history of art, this was to be a broader overview of civilisation presented thematically rather than chronologically. Classicist Mary Beard covered sacred art and the art of the body. Tired of the traditional Great Man view of art – ‘one damn genius after another’ – she shifted the focus back onto the cultural consumer, asking, what does art do? From here interesting psychological insights arose. Might historical rulers have exhibited magnificent portraits of themselves not only to convince others of their greatness, as is commonly suggested, but also to bolster their own, sometimes wavering self-esteem? Reviewers bemoaned the lack of story, but in its place was an acknowledgement of the interplay between the world’s ever-shifting communities and cultures.

Historian David Olusoga, meanwhile, covered what he terms the ‘first age of globalisation’, the encounters that happened between peoples of the world from the 13th to 18th centuries. While there is a general awareness of the encounters that occurred around colonialism, Olusoga reminded us that global trade had facilitated an exchange of goods, energies and ideas for centuries beforehand and that Euro-Asian or Euro-African encounters didn’t necessarily mean domination or annihilation. Sixteenth century Japan barely tolerated Eurotraders and referred to them as namban (southern barbarians) due to their lack of table manners and poor hygiene.

What the books that accompany the series offer is more detail and a greater exploration of ideas. Some of what’s on offer is verbatim TV scripts, but there’s more here too. Beard said recently that it was arguments not art works she wished she’d been able to include more of in her programmes. She’s rehomed these in her book, including Xenophanes’ argument that cattle would depict their own gods as cattle thereby questioning the human convention of depicting gods in human form.

Olusoga provides a powerful account of the Benin Bronzes. These remarkable works were looted (a Hindustani word that entered common parlance during the colonial period) after Britain brutally stormed Benin City, capital of the Edo people (now in modern-day Nigeria), on the pretext it was retribution for a previous bloody ambush of Britons. Afterwards, they systematically removed all art from the walls of the palaces and used local people to carry it to waiting ships. Back in Britain the sophistication of the works couldn’t be comprehended. If these people were so savage and uncultured – as it suited a conquering empire to believe – how had they been able to produce such extraordinary works of art? Rather than dismantle an entire understanding of the ‘so-called Dark Continent’, commentators proposed that they must have been produced by visiting Portuguese artists, or influenced by ancient Egyptians, or perhaps they were the remnants of the Lost City of Atlantis or, more perniciously, that they were evidence African races had ‘degenerated’ (neatly segueing into Britain’s ‘civilising mission’ that cloaked the more ugly impulses of colonialism).

The unsettling photographs of the soldiers posing on top of the spoils bring to mind those from Abu Ghraib. It’s a reminder that history isn’t always as far away as we’d like and where there is ‘civilisation’ there is often an accompanying belief in ‘barbarity’ (a word derived from the incomprehensible ‘bar-bar-bar’ the Greeks said foreigners emitted). And, paradoxically, where one country believes itself to be more civilised than another, this dynamic is often enforced in barbarous ways.

In his book, Olusoga touchingly relates how his mother took him and his half-African siblings to see the Benin Bronzes at the age of six, to armour them against the still-prevalent belief that the ‘Negro imagination was impoverished and primitive’ compared to that of the European.

The series and accompanying books may not have been as great as their ambitions but, as Beard writes, ‘I’m convinced that we gain more than we lose in making the attempt to look more widely.’

Click here to purchase the Civilisations series by Mary Beard and David Olusoga via Amazon

red line

NEVER MISS A STORY

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our free weekly newsletter!

red line

Subscribe to Geographical!

Geographical Week

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Exhibitions

Annual photography competition at the Natural History Museum celebrates the…

Exhibitions

We all have to live with buildings, but getting the…

Books

by Bruno Latour • Polity Books • £12.99 (hardback)

Books

edited by Fearghal O’Nuallain • Summersdale • £9.99 (paperback)

Books

by Francis Fukuyama • Profile Books • £16.99 (hardback) • £14.99 (eBook)

Books

by Pascal Bruckner • Polity Books • £16.99 (hardback)

Books

by Kevin Begos • Algonquin Books • £20.99 (hardback)

Books

by Karl Schlögel (translated by Gerrit Jackson) • Reaktion Books • £18 (hardback)

Films

Space race biopic tries to uncover the real Neil Armstrong,…

Exhibitions

Four new galleries at Royal Museums Greenwich explore Britain’s maritime…

Books

by John Foot • Bloomsbury • £25 (hardback)

Books

by Deborah Baker • Chatto & Windus • £25 (hardback)

Books

By Lucy Seigle • Trapexe • £12.99/£6.99 (hardback/eBook)

Books

by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin • Pelican • £8.99 (paperback)

Books

by Christoph Baumer • IB Tauris • £30 (hardback)

Books

by Charles Lane • River Books • £40 (hardback)

Books

by Graham Hoyland• William Collins • £20 (hardback)

Books

by Dr Lucy Jones• Doubleday Books • £19.99 (hardback)

Books

by Daniel Pinchbeck• Watkins • £9.99 (paperback)

Books

by Jasper Winn • Profile Books • £16.99 (hardback)