Review: The Future of the Past, Alexander Stille

This book was so cool! (Except for the unacceptable way there was no index. What nonfiction book skips indexing??) But it should stand as a lesson in the importance of titles. This is a dreary title, isn’t it? I got the book at the library in a very grudging spirit, because I wanted to read loads of books about conservation and cultural property controversies and archaeological ethics and all that sort of thing, but they didn’t have very many books like that (see previously No Bone Unturned and Stealing History for the only other two books I could find on these topics). So I got this instead, and the title sounded so boring that I put off reading it for days and days, until I had exhausted nearly all my other subway book options (I still had plays left, but they’re not good for subways because they run out too quickly), and then I finally stuck this one in my purse to read on the train. I also put Ender’s Game in my purse because I suspected The Future of the Past would be boring and I would need an alternative.

Not so! It was actually really good and absorbing and cool. If it had had a good title I’d have read it sooner and not given poor Future Jenny bursitis by carrying around a purse with two books in it. Because titles are important.

The Future of the Past is a book about our attitudes toward the past — conserving it, changing it, moving away from it — in many different aspects. There’s a chapter about Latin as a living language, a chapter about attempts to preserve the Sphinx, a chapter about the native species of Madagascar, a chapter about oral vs written culture in Somalia — just all these different things that are changing and being lost because we don’t want to preserve them or don’t know how to preserve them or the things we think will preserve them just end up destroying them more.

Like, here’s a thing. In China and Japan, copying something is considered a viable way of preserving it. Less of an emphasis is placed (says Stille) on individual achievement, so making a really really good copy of a thing isn’t considered forgery. But this really isn’t a compatible view of conservation with the West. Sometimes Western museums will have special exhibits and ask China to send them, you know, whatever, eight terracotta army tomb guys, and China will send maybe four original ones and four really good copies, and the museum will be like, Dude! We can’t display these! They’re forgeries!, and China’s feelings will be hurt because they don’t think of them that way (says Stille). Italy came up with this partnership with China where they would open a conservation school in China, and the Italians will have a classful of students and the teacher will say “Okay. Here’s a bronze helmet from ancient Rome that’s been broken into three pieces. How would you fix this piece up in order to display it at a museum?” And the Chinese students — even second and third-year conservation students! — will be like, “Solder it!”

Interesting, right? There was also a whole chapter about Egypt trying to rebuild the library at Alexandria and all the weird bureaucratic things that make it hard to do that. It reminded me that Alexandrian scholars were the people in the first place who put together the Iliad and the Odyssey as we have them today, using textual criticism. Oo, and there was another chapter about this priest who taught amazing conversational Latin classes in Rome. If you couldn’t afford to pay the school fees, he would teach you for free. He just loves Latin and wants the people to know. (But he hates the Latin textbooks I had as a kid. Whatever, dude. Those books were the best.)

If you fancy a book of really good stories about different aspects of conservation, I strongly recommend The Future of the Past. Ignore how the title makes it sound boring. It’s not boring. You’re welcome.

25 thoughts on “Review: The Future of the Past, Alexander Stille

  1. That business about different attitudes toward copying is so interesting. It makes me think about all those plaster casts at the V&A, which I think are awesome. It’s because of those casts that I know Michaelangelo’s David is way bigger than life-size, so I’m in favor of really good copies because I can’t go everywhere and see all the things for myself, although I would like to know that I’m looking at a copy. In my mind, it’s only a forgery if you aren’t told.

    • I love the plaster casts! I happened upon them by accident the first time I visited the V&A, which also happened to be my first full day in London, and they blew my mind. People should still do that! Those things are amazing!

  2. Wow, it sounds interesting. I’m adding this one to my list. Funny, I’ve come across quite a few books lately that have inappropriate-seeming titles, including the one I’m reading now.

  3. This does sound really interesting and eclectic. I would have imagined that this book would have been boring, but you have totally made me see the light and made me realize that this is indeed something that I need to read. The cultural perspectives sound amazing, and your review was so delightful and intoxicating! Great post today! I loved it!

  4. I…don’t think the title is bad. It’s not sexy, but it is kind of interesting and thought-provoking nonetheless. Also, if they re-do the library at Alexandria, I am totally going back there. I will live on the corniche and spend mornings at the library and afternoons drinking tea in a tea house up on stilts in the Mediterranean, and my life will be delightful. You may visit. My expenses will be small, so I will pay for your ticket.

    Also, the book sounds pretty enticing. Great review~!

    • Eh. I do not care for it.

      Alexandria is apparently not as pleasant as it once was, but you can let me know about that when you get there. The library is sort of crazy-looking! Search for it on Google Images and you will see what I mean, it’s white on top and it’s like a shallow parabola? Very odd and, apparently, very expensive.

    • Hahahahaha, I assure you that I too am a nerd. I guess I just felt like the title wasn’t alluring to me and also didn’t describe the contents of the book very well.

  5. I won’t solder the Roman artifact. What I’ll do is polish it up with Silvo and keep it in my cupboard to gloat over, until I’m found out. (Name that Roman hoard story!)

      • Silvo is a brand name of silver polish, and if you haven’t read the story of the Mildenhall Treasure, you must you must you must. Read the real story, but also read Roald Dahl’s (true, based on interviews) short story that he wrote about it. It’s the most astonishing thing.

  6. This book sounds really neat! Also, the tags on this post made me laugh. (I have experience with that series of Latin textbooks through work — there are related electronic products, one of which in particular I did a bunch of testing/proofing on. Caecilius est in horto, indeed.)

    • There are related electronic products? What. I never had such high-faluting things when I was a kid. What sort of things are in the electronic products? Are there games? Are there moving cartoons of the characters?

      • The specific product I was working with is intended for teachers – it lets them custom-build tests based on the tests that go with the books, so they can pick certain questions or certain skills only, or add their own questions, or generate different versions of the same test (same questions but different order). And then they can either print the tests or have their students take them online. Then there’s also a set of e-learning DVDs that I wasn’t involved in the development of, but have seen demos of – they have videos (documentary and also dramatization-style – e.g. “introductions to the stories and Stages, presented by characters from the Course”!) and other stuff. And yes, there are apparently games online, though I had nothing to do with those/don’t know anything about them, though I suspect they’re more quiz/test-ish than game-ish.

  7. That’s an interesting tidbit about the Chinese. Goes to show it’s good to know about the culture you’re dealing with! Would have prevented hurt feelings.

    • I know! I was a little shocked that this led to hurt feelings more than about once, because I feel like after that first time, people would get better about communicating effectively.

  8. Ooh, that does sound interesting!

    The forgeries/copies thing reminds me of when I went to the Otago Museum in Dunedin. They had all these Greek and Roman artifacts, and very few of them were originals. The rest were copies (with little placards identifying them as such), and this seemed like a total non-issue. It was more important to the museum to have accurate copies on display than to avoid an entire section of history because they didn’t have the originals.

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