Historium: Welcome to the Museum (Review)
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
Interest Level: Ages 8 to Adult
Author: Jo Nelson
Illustrator: Richard Wilkinson
Publisher: Big Picture Press, 2015
Reading Level: Ages 10 and up
Retail: $35.00, Hardcover
Summary: Inspired by museum displays and cabinets of curiosities, this book features captioned illustrations of dozens of artifacts gathered into "galleries" corresponding to different parts of the world. Introductory text for each collection provides general information.
I've been curious about this book for a long time. It's expensive, but it seems to get good reviews on Amazon, and is part of a larger series of children's books that has become popular (e.g. Animalium). There are so few children's books available on archaeology that I knew I'd lay eyes on this one before too long.
Historium is large and impressive. It cleverly uses the concept of museum exhibits to organize its galleries and "plates" of illustrations and the author and illustrator are credited as "curators." The cover page has a "ticket" to the museum. Fonts and artistic elements add to the vintage feel. The individual items depicted in the book are visually interesting and fairly detailed. The book has a general index of places and artifact types and another index of the the museums and galleries where the featured items are curated.
I will not quibble with any of the reviewers who call this book beautiful. Unfortunately, when I looked past the grandeur, I found it underwhelming. At best, the content is lacking. At worst, it perpetuates stereotypes and old-fashioned ideas about how we understand the past.
According to the publication information inside the book, the illustrations are "drawn and painted digitally." It's not clear from this description if we are seeing hand drawings that were later digitally modified or if the drawings were made digitally from published photographs. Whatever the case, the resulting images are drab and surprisingly lacking in individuality. The paper chosen for the book, a thick matte stock, adds to the dullness of the plates. The unified color palette used throughout and a complete absence of scale give a false sense of uniformity.
Introductory material in this book discusses the importance of context in being able to compare and contrast artifacts from the past. Unfortunately, the very format of this book is to pull objects out of context and dehumanize them. There is simply not enough information for children to learn much about past cultures. Reducing the cultural history of an entire continent into a couple dozen visually interesting items is an ambitious undertaking that was, unfortunately, destined to fail.
The authors could have chosen from any artifacts in the world to feature in their virtual museum. There are no subject matter experts credited in the book, and it is unclear how each object was chosen. Kirkus reviews describe this title as, "An arbitrary assortment of relics not likely to furnish either ... insight or ... glimpses of wonder." I couldn't have said it better.
This book belongs on the shelves of a museum gift shop or in a display of remainders in a large box book store. It might be good for a few browsings, but you don't get much educational value. It is not a good choice for learning about archaeology or the extraordinary cultural diversity of our planet.