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.