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A History of the World: development and build

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Katherine Campbell | 16:50 UK time, Thursday, 10 June 2010

You might have used the website A History of the World, you might have heard the programme, found the podcast on iTunes, heard your kids were doing it at school or watched Relic: Guardians of the Museum on CBBC.

You could have seen the objects in the British Museum, come across a feverish uploading session at your museum, seen us at an Antiques Road Show, found us on Facebook, chanced across Simon Mayo, Edith Bowman or Andrew Motion recounting the story of their object (a bar of a soap from the World Trade Centre, a flat cap and a Hindu carving) - or even uploaded your own.

This is the story of how A History of the World grew and how we built a site to support it.

Where it all began

It started with a partnership between Radio 4 and the British Museum - a commission of 100 programmes that would tell two million years of history through 100 objects in the British Museum's collection, a 'history of humanity told through objects'. From that, the project grew.

From one partner, the British Museum, came connections to hundreds of museums, each with objects that could provide a regional spectrum of objects that could tell a history of the world alongside the British Museum's. Suddenly, we had 350 new partners, with over 600 objects. BBC teams across the UK (radio, TV and digital) joined up and planned ambitious documentaries and campaigns for 2010.

And if the UK's museums were telling history through their objects, why not broaden this out to the audience too - to create a nation of 'citizen historians' whose objects and stories would tell global history from their own perspective, that could tell a history of us?

The digital offer: R&D

Partners. Broadcast. History. Connections. Interaction. Legacy. There was lots for us and the British Museum digital team to consider. Our collaborations with our partners and audience were really valuable and we wanted to make the most of them. We wanted to attract new audiences and engage existing ones and to reveal the stories and connections behind objects that would create historical narratives.

The digital offer would need to:

  • Host thousands of objects
  • Integreate programme and podcast listings
  • Allow audience and partners to register and upload their objects
  • Provide an interface so content could be premoderated
  • Provide area-specific feeds and content to 61 Nations and Regions site
  • Host a blog
  • Host details of partner activities in digital and physical spaces
  • Offer a 'staggered engagement model' - explore, comment, ratings, upload
  • Provide an immersive way to explore each object - rich media, deep zoom, multiple view points
  • Allow the audience to explore by passion, by time, by type of contributor
  • Provide 'atoms' that could be embedded on partner sites
  • Provide a mobile site that would run on feeds from the main site
  • Provide a portable and persistent legacy

We looked to wise industry colleagues for advice. Live|work told us that history starts with an interest in local and the personal passion, to let audiences curate their own routes through content and sites. Rattle said, go global, 'give the museums a voice', give objects context, offer 'multiple interpretations', not a single authoritarian voice. Make the small objects as important as the big ones. Give users different ways to group the objects.

Magnetic North inspired ideas for connective journeys. Russell Davies blew us all away with ideas of 'collections of everything'. Here is one of Rattle's user journeys - find more here.


We worked with colleagues at the British Museum to create an offer as illuminating as a museum visit: the use of deep zoom; 360 videos to let you 'walk round' the object; curators on hand via the comments; 'additional perspectives' with multiple opinions. We almost lived with the British Museum web team for several weeks, and they generated the content that would let the audience really 'get closer' to the objects via rich media and text. Marketing took the idea to a fantastic extreme and commissioned two epic TV trails: the Bull and the Horse.

CBBC created Relic: Guardians at the Museum - a series based around 13 objects from the original 100, which saw children on a treasure-hunt of challenges that was shot at the British Museum, a format that was developed with the British Museum has now rolled out in paper form to over 50 museums around the country. BBC Schools worked with the British Museum to create a series of Lesson Plans.

Design and User Experience

As we started to link up with partners from across the UK, we were doing the same across the BBC with Audio & Music interactive (A&Mi) and Future Media and Technology (FM&T).

A&Mi UXD team embraced the project and brought inspiration and direction to our plans. Led by Yasser Rashid and Tom Spalding, the team developed user journeys and interface hierarchies, which were distilled into a series of wireframes to support arrival, exploration, filters, zooms, exploratory journeys, upload. Object pages would engage through rich media and information, and push the user to explore into the immersive interface we had started to call the Explorer - where a user could move through time through potentially thousands of objects. Read more about the journey in a post on Yasser's blog. Here's an early suggestion, from designer Aidan O'Brien:


And how Tom translated this into a working wireframe:


Chris Thorne, lead information architect, worked alongside the design team. He developed a domain model, and collaborated with the British Museum to develop over 200 ways of filtering objects on the site - from theme, culture, material to colour, size and time. In terms of journeys, we needed the user to move between programme content, objects, the Explorer and upload. We wanted rich aggregations of objects, and needed a domain model that could be applied to a two million year old handaxe or the latest Atari handset. See this explained in erudite detail on Chris's blog.


The Build Begins

VML [known as GT in those days] won the commission in August 2009, and the build started as soon as the contract was dry. Meanwhile, FM&T were looking hard at our sprawling project plans. Forge was mentioned - a brave new platform that would give us participation and integration with services across the BBC. But it was in its infancy. And with very little functionality established, we realized that we and VML were also looking at building an uploader and moderation apps. The scope of work ran to over 100 pages.

The mesmerizing deep zoom functionality was developed by our in-house developer, Ant Ali, who took Microsoft's Seadragon and tweaked it into something that pulls you in, and in, and in. Just try the Rosetta Stone and go back 2,000 years.

How the site was built

By now it was October and the build was frantic. VML/GT pulled out their stops and turned in an amazing build - translating mock ups, wireframes, data models and journeys into the site you see today. Gareth Faires, engineer on the project, takes up the story:

"Working with the BBC's new platform stack was a steep learning curve for the team. FM&T Ops teams helped with our barrage of questions. The site was front-end written in PHP, utilizing the Zend web framework. The service layer written in Java, exposing a RESTful interface for consumption by the front end apps and the AHOW mobile application. The object data stored in a MySQL database, the image data in KV Store (a BBC API wrapping access to a cluster of CouchDB instances)."

The Explorer: 2 million years of history, an unknown number of objects...

The team worked round the clock and weekends. And while they were wrestling with the BBC platform stack and beating off the bugs - winter illness and technical - they built the Flash Explorer. This had been scoped out with Tom, Chris and Yasser - but now for the build. Over to Gareth at VML again to explain how:
"The main challenge facing the development of the Explorer was to build something capable of handling anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 objects, loading in their images and displaying it all in glorious 3-D... all without crashing the user's browser. Every object or filter set accessible within the Explorer can be bookmarked, shared, or navigated with the browser backward/forward buttons. The Explorer's 3-D view itself can be navigated with the keyboard, mouse wheel or the on-screen controls.

The Flash was built using the latest version of Adobe's Flex SDK and ActionScript 3.0 - written strictly to optimise performance and memory management, while ensuring maximum stability. Coding techniques such as object pooling, typed arrays, load queueing, render deferral and the flyweight design pattern were used to maximise performance and minimise memory usage. Flash Player 10's new native 3-D API was used in favour of proprietary Flash 3-D engines, to allow maximum control of the 3-D rendering code and to take advantage of Flash's advances in this area."

Each wave of the build brought more integration requirements - with Forge, Identity [the BBC registration system], with APS (/programmes pages), with Nuxeo [the CMS for mobile], the News CPS [the BBC Local page CMS]; iPlayer [for programme feeds]; Movable Type [blog cms], with Sage [the BBC measurement tool]; Image Chef2 for image manipulation.

The mobile site is another ingenious built - a daily changing selection of objects, podcasts and programmes - find out more about what James Simcock's team achieved on the mobile post on the A History of the World blog.

By the time we launched on 18 January, 350 UK museums had uploaded almost 600 objects. 61 BBC Nations and Local sites take feeds of objects from their areas (See the feed on the BBC Manchester site. There is a podcast and a mobile site, a blog, thousands of objects on the site and a roster of fantastic programming and partnerships where the object is still very much star. Find it all here.

Paul Sargeant, Producer on A History of the World, will be posting soon tracking the project since launch and the collection we're building.

Katherine Campbell is Senior Content Producer, Audio & Music Interactive.


  • Comment number 1.

    This was a fascinating piece, would love to communicate with Katherine. I'm working on an article related to digital preservation for historical/archival research purposes and would love to reference this piece. [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 2.

    This is a very cool website, do you know if relic guardians of the museum going to come back on air soon, as I liked it a lot and think that the programme is really cool.Also do you know if there's going to be a dvd made soon of the kids tv show Relic Guardians Of The Museum? One last question who's the Dark Lord played by or can you not tell us? I'm asking because I think he's a good baddie in that he's scary and creepy and his voice is scarier than his costume. His costume's very well made by the way, who made it? I'm not scaried much but wow that way he shouts Agatha like a schoolteacher! Made me jump the first time I heard it, never mind Agatha.I didn't jump the second time cause I knew it was coming. I like Agatha cause she's friendly and nice. I wonder what happened to her?

  • Comment number 3.

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


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