‘A History of the World, not the History of the World.’ A History of the World in 100 objects

Contributed by Léan Ní Chléirigh

BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum have launched a new series of programmes in which they will attempt to tell the History of the World through 100 artefacts found in the collections of the British Museum. Each artefact will form the basis for one programme lasting 15 minutes. Being a huge fan of Museums, Radio 4 and the 15-minute programme, this was easily the most exciting thing which happened to me all year.

The project, however, is not without its difficulties. The immediate one which springs to mind is the right of the British Museum to many of the artefacts which it displays. So far none of the objects discussed have a British provenance. When the show was previewed in the Times, the majority of the comments came from African readers quite reasonably asking for their stuff back from the British Museum. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British museum and presenter, has foreseen this problem and he promises that this subject will be tackled in the series. In the mean time he asked Egyptian author, Ahdaf Soueif what she thinks. Soueif’s attitude is fairly conciliatory; that the presence of Egyptian artefacts in museums all over the world reminds people of the common human history which we all share. A quick glance at the controversy sparked in Egypt when Germany refused to lend the bust of Nefertiti to the Egyptians for a three month exhibition in 2009 -sparking angry protests from the Egyptians that she was their queen- suggests that her opinion may the minority one.

One of the most pleasing things about the programme is that objects which some of us would have ignored in the Museum itself, (in a hurry to get to the Egyptians or Sutton Hoo) are the stars of the show. The artefacts were selected on the basis of their value as a guide to specific incidents in the evolution or history of man, rather than their size, beauty or value. The second programme, for example, features a cutting tool from the Olduvai gorge in East Africa. Visually unremarkable, this is the oldest artefact in the museum collection and one of the oldest manmade objects found in the world.  Probably used to strip meat from a carcass, this tool provided access to protein from meat and marrow which scientists believe was essential in our neurological development. The programme (and indeed the series) is presented by  MacGregor and also features the no-need-for-introductions Sir David Attenborough, flint napper and Time Team pin-up, Phil Harding, and the Nobel Prize Winner, Dr Wangeri Maathai. While listening you can visit the website and look at a picture of the object which can be enlarged and navigated. Hilariously for the radio, you can also listen while Phil napps a piece of flint. Altogether a most pleasing quarter of an hour.

The first programme suffers from some teething issues and it isn’t until episode two that it gains its stride so don’t let the first programme put you off. Often a radio 4 series will have a separate introductory panel discussion in which the producers and presenters will introduce the series and its aims and debate its modern relevance; a show such as this was broadcast before the ‘A History of Private Life,’ series last year. In this series, however, the first programme is part introduction to the broad concepts, and part discussion of the object, in this case an Egyptian casket. Even the choice of object, a Mummy’s case a mere 2,000 years old is at odds with the rest of the week’s shows which feature the oldest manmade objects known to exist, is a bit disconcerting. MacGregor’s assertion that this was the first object which he remembers seeing in the Museum when he was 8 years old seems a little bit indulgent. Once the series hits its stride, however, it is lovely. The website is perfectly judged, complementing the series without replacing it and the facility where members of the public can nominate their own objects adds a democratic element.

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5 Responses to “‘A History of the World, not the History of the World.’ A History of the World in 100 objects”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    I put this programme – which I’ve been listening to on podcast, about a week late – on my list of recommendations for February, and I’m sticking by it. I agree that the 15-minute length is just perfect, but I’m not so sure about the website (a bit slow and too flashy?), though it is a good idea to be able to see the objects too. As for the question of whether or not the pieces should be in the museum at all; nearly three weeks in I’ve heard little or nothing about it, so their promise to address the issue – outside a few token words in the opening programme – have fallen flat so far. It definitely does need to be addressed though, since it’s the thing that seems to strike most (non-British?) visitors quite strongly on arriving at the museum.

    One thing that might be interesting, if anybody out there’s tried it, I’d like to hear, would be to follow the trail of objects in the museum, via the medium of the podcasts. You could obviously only do a few at a time, but I think it would be intriguing – more than viewing the objects on the website – to see if it would change the experience to listen to them in the presence of the objects themselves.

    I think you’re absolutely right that these are pieces that you’d almost certainly pass if you were in the museum itself, but that are completely brought to life when you listen to them spoken about in this fashion. But maybe that could be one of the major things to come out of this series – that the old style of interaction with objects in a museum like this is increasingly outdated and that a new medium needs to be found. Anyone any ideas?


  2. Lean Says:

    I’m heading to London in March and was just thinking of heading in to have a look! My favourite thing about the series is that it looks at what makes us human. There’s a great book called ‘Ideas, from fire to Freud,’ of which I’ve only read the first chapter, which looks at a similar issue when discussing what ‘man’s first idea’ actually was. There’s basically a debate over whether it was tools or language but the discussion of where the difference between humans and animals is fascinating. And much better than the presenter of this show who said it was ‘making things.’
    The presenter made an interesting point about how the show is in fact an extension of the museum because it aims to do the exact things which museums were set up to do, i.e. bring history to people through the arrangement of artefacts. I think some museums who really understand the point of the museum and their public, not just school tours, are increasingly innovating to address this.
    But I do love museums so I might be biased.

  3. Linda Shine Says:

    Well if you like that BBC Radio 4 offering you should try the current season of Making History, which is also broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and which I have been podcasting. It is connected to the ‘A History of the World’ project, but instead of discussing objects from the British Museum it discusses some of the objects uploaded by members of the public onto their Digital Museum. Its aim is to explore ordinary people links with the past, but it also uses these personal histories to cast light on wider event or themes in history. One such object was a fur coat that belonged to the Northern Ireland Granny of one of the contributing historians (who was at pains to point out that she didn’t supporting the use of fur). Sixteen pockets had been sown onto the inside of this coat during World War II, so that this enterprising future grandmother could smuggle food across the border from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland. She would head off on the train to Dublin in the morning as a slim woman and return looking quite stout. This personal history seemed pretty pertinent to me at a time when people from the Republic of Ireland are still flocking to Northern Ireland in search of bargains.

    Another history began with a canon ball found during road works in a small village in Kent, called Biddenden. This canon ball opened up a discussion of the role of iron working in this part of Kent from the Roman period until the later medieval period. The canon ball was also used to tell the story of an international arms trade in the later medieval period and an industrial revolution long before the official industrial revolution on Britain. The programmes are a mixed bag of periods and types of history, but the personal element helps to make them more immediate and tangible.

    As the histories explored in this programme are personal histories they generally manage to avoid the ethical pitfalls of artefacts that came from another country or culture. However, they do raise the question of whether objects that are found by chance by an individual should belong to them, as they do in Britain, or to the State, as they do in Ireland. If the recently uncovered Anglo-Saxon hoard had been found in Ireland and not in Britain the question of it being sold to a collection outside the State would never have arisen. However, the cooperation between metal detectorists and museums in Britain have led to very significant finds, but perhaps at the expense of their archaeological context.

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