Object 100 contender 3: Antarctic clothing
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
- Find out about the other contenders: a football shirt, a mobile phone, a solar-powered lamp and a pestle and mortar.
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