Wednesday, 18 May 2011

A History of the World in 100 Objects

Today’s lunchtime Origins talk at the National Museum Wales in Cardiff proved so popular it was relocated to the large Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre; not too surprising given that the subject was one of the most popular BBC Radio 4 programs of recent times. Dr J.D. Hill, Head of Research at the British Museum, gave a fascinating insight into the making of A History of the World in 100 Objects. In this series, British Museum Director Neil MacGregor told one hundred stories based on objects in the museum’s collection that shed light on the object's wider history, so that we can better understand events in our own time.

J. D. Hill was lead curator on A History of the World, which, although centring on the radio show, was a huge multi-media project involving a website, podcasts, a bestselling book, collaborations with 540 other museums around the UK, a children’s TV series and more. Dr Hill outlined the benefits of radio as a basis for the whole project, being much cheaper than TV, allowing more risks to be taken, and enabling the presenter to say more in the thirteen-and-a-half minutes of each episode (around 1800 words) than could be said in an hour of TV.

The oldest object selected itself, according to Dr Hill, being a stone tool (the Clovis Spear Point) from 1.8m years ago representing an advance in human technology for killing and eating animals. As history becomes more modern there is more choice of objects because more artefacts survive.

It was decided that the choice of objects should cover global human history. In those terms, objects from Britain and Europe might be considered as being over-represented. However, a decision was made to include familiar objects, to give listeners a frame of reference, alongside ones few may have encountered before. One such unfamiliar object is a bird-shaped pestle from Papua New Guinea, representing the birth of agriculture and early attempts at cookery.

The final choice of object (from 2010) was a source of much debate. Neil MacGregor’s choice of a solar-powered torch was selected, ending the series of a positive note (although Drogba’s Chelsea shirt and thermals for exploring Antarctica were also contenders). This raises a big question: what do you collect now so that museums in the future can best understand the 21st Century.

Dr Hill concluded his talk by noting how the popularity of the series had far exceeded their expectations, illustrating its global reach using a cartoon from a newspaper in the Midwestern USA in which two teenage boys are asked their ‘lame’ Dad what’s on his i-pod (the podcast featuring the Minoan bull leapers, as it  turns out).

The culture surrounding food is represented by the story surrounding a Mayan stone Maize God, a silver pepper pot tells of the Roman spice trade with India, an early Victorian tea set is used to tell the story of the global trade in tea, and so forth. All the programmes can be heard via the website:

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