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Object 100 contender 3: Antarctic clothing

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 09:00 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010


Clothing for the Antarctic


I’d like to start today by going back to the very first episodes of A History of the World in 100 objects in which Neil MacGregor described a two million year-old stone chopping tool and an almost two million year-old stone handaxe.

Those series stalwarts who’ve tuned in since the very beginning will know that objects such as these formed the revolutionary technology that enabled our earliest ancestors to live in the changing environments in which they found themselves. Even two million years ago it was already becoming apparent that the things we make would allow us to adapt, explore and thrive pretty much anywhere on our planet.

Fast-forward a little and the next object (or objects) on our list of contenders for the 100th spot in our tale finds us – for the first time in human history – exploring, living and working in the last place on earth to be colonised by us.

It’s a set of clothing designed to be worn in Antarctica.

Clothing? A coat and some furry boots? The 100th object? Really? Well, I’m assured that if you tried to go for a walk on or around the South Pole without this lot you’d likely be dead within, say, one hour.

As anyone tuning into Radio 4 this morning will have heard, British Museum curator Barrie Cook explained how these clothes make it possible for humans to live in a place we simply couldn’t have covered at any other stage in the story Neil MacGregor has been telling.

But there are more reasons why these articles of clothing are appropriate representatives of our times. They’re almost exclusively put together using man-made materials that could only be produced using the technology of the twenty-first century.

They were also constructed in different places around the world (Colombia, Canada, France, and… er… Devon). This of course tells of the globalised world in which we now live – in some ways it’s a marvel that this united nations of outerware can be put together from shops right here in Britain – but it also tells of our own age of exploration.

We’re used to stories of Captain Cook, of Ernest Shackleton, whose daring deeds have grown into the stuff of legend, but these clothes represent the twenty-first century equivalent of what they – and our two million year-old ancestors – did. This is us reaching the frontier of our world and making things to help us live there. Indeed the only reason we can live there is because of the very human characteristic of making, using and depending on ‘things’.

But why would we want to live there?

Well, this is another part of the story. Antarctica is quite literally at the forefront of environmental and climate change. We need these clothes so we can study this place and come to understand the processes that will surely define humanity’s next chapter.

This object will help us write that.

  • Listen to Evan Davis discussing the Antarctic clothing with curator Barrie Cook

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What do you think? Add a comment


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    I have listened to many of these programmes and have enjoyed them all. I realise that the 100th object was always going to be contentious. I believe that the object should not only have an impact but should reasonably be expected to be around in, perhaps, another 2 million years when they run 'A hostory of the World in.....' again. For that reason I would have opted for something in space and in this regard two objects spring to mind; first the lunar landing module on the Moon or, second, the voyager spacecraft. Either of these have extended the horizons of our race significantly and could well linger longer than the human race. As for the Antartic Clothing, I would question whether we can truly say these represnt the first time humans have been able to explore our own world. Many peoples have shown the capability to tavel to and perhaps live in hostile environments. Whatever the point of view thanks for a great series - brilliant radio.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think I would have picked skis as opposed to the clothing. Skis have remained pretty much unchanged for hundreds (if not thousands) of years and have not only contributed to both Arctic and Antarctic exploration but have also played their part in battle, hunting, sport and recreation, business, tourism, an appreciation of global warming and the sales of plaster of Paris!

  • Comment number 4.

    I hope that there will be a second series that will have with genuine real world objects... phone, lip stick, soap, tights, flight boarding pass, soccer ball, coke bottle, the pill... the current slant reads like a BBC intelligentsia's view of life - we don't all go to to Hampstead cocktail parties!!

    Most of the world will not have even heard of Hockney let alone a seen in person one of his pics.

    Great stimulating series - hey, time to move now?

  • Comment number 5.

    I would get hypothermia very quickly if I went out in London on a night like this without my "fleece". It is mid October and wintery already. I bought my Polartec fleece in a chain of specialist outdoor clothing retailers 9 years ago, and it quickly became my winter necessity along with gloves and beany- now a common or garden equivalent of Antarctic clothing and more vital to me than my mobile phone, which I would and have survived a night without.
    (apologies for long and rambling sentence).

    I have learnt that humans came to Europe millions of years ago and must have had some sort of wool or leather clothing to survive, but I bet it wasn't as comfy and lightweight as my fleece.


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