By Kevin O’Sullivan
On a Friday afternoon last October, at the end of a particularly intensive week’s photographing at the National Archives in Kew, I took the opportunity of a few hours rambling around London before catching the late flight from Heathrow. Bag safely ensconced in the left luggage at St Pancras, I headed for the British Museum with the germ of an idea. For months I’d been listening to – and loving – the museum’s ambitious collaborative project with BBC Radio 4: A History of the World in 100 Objects.
I arrived by the way I always seem to manage to get to the British Museum: not by the grand steps of the front entrance, but through that innocuous back/side entrance that makes you feel as though you’ve snuck in to the heart of the building without running the gambit of the groups of school children that range from the unruly to the genuinely interested via the more common expression: I’d-rather-be-somewhere/anywhere-else. (Innocuous, of course, except for the giant stone lions outside, but why would a historian let facts get in the way of a good narrative?)
The plan, in as much as I had one, was to pick – at random – two or three objects from the sixty or so episodes still on my iPod, occupy a quiet bench and listen as the persuasive voice of Niall McGregor, the museum’s director, guided me through the detail and context of a set of coins from eight century Syria. Finding the objects, of course, was the potentially fatal flaw – needle, haystack, not having an image, etc. But that was easily overcome by using one of the free maps conveniently on display just inside my door, with objects 1-100 mapped out carefully according to their position in the museum’s many rooms.
Less straightforward was getting one’s hands on the programmes themselves. A quick query at the desk ran something like this: Audio guide? Yes. One that actually contained the programmes? No. But no matter, I had my iPod and hoarded episodes.
I picked, less at random and more to do with curiosity and personal interest, two: a 2,500-year-old stone mask made by the Olmec people in what is now south-east Mexico; and an eighteenth century Native American buckskin map depicting the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers – what is now Illinois, Indiana and Missouri. My notes record the following: feeling that this experiment had somehow brought me into areas of the museum that I would have happily skipped; curiosity as to whether anyone else was doing the same thing; and the peaceful awkwardness – if that is possible – of spending 15 minutes in front of an object, ear buds in place, while to onlookers, for all they knew, I’d nothing better to do than to spend the afternoon listening to Now: Metal! while perusing the fine points of turn-of-the twentieth century Japanese art. Not that I look particularly like a Metallica-listener – I think – but you get the point.
But my overwhelming memory is one of connection, in a way I’d never felt before. I am, you see, something of a museum sceptic. It’s an affliction born of too many stale, boring exhibitions, with prescriptive or unreadable texts to accompany items crammed into a mahogany glass case. But this experience was radically different. Here I had an expert voice that I could pause, rewind and who would present me with a brilliantly nuanced and global history of the piece in front of me. A glorified audio guide, you might claim – but I intensely dislike them too, so no.
So why am I writing about this now? The answer is simple: because I noticed last weekend that Fintan O’Toole’s BBC-inspired ‘History of Ireland in 100 Objects’ (see what they did there?) weekly series in the The Irish Times has reached the first century AD. Which made me wonder: what is the National Museum doing to tie in with that series? Maps? Special brochures? Audioguides? A special highfaluting school-children’s tour? Does anyone know? (And here’s another question for you: the National Museum, I haven’t been in ages – should I go and take a look?)