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Welcome to A History of the World

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Neil MacGregor Neil MacGregor | 09:30 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

nmacg_570.jpgMost of us learn history from books, but I think that it is physical objects - actual things - that most powerfully connect us to the past - things made by somebody with hands just like ours, for a purpose we can still hope to understand.

It is the power of things that has inspired the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 series. The British Museum's collection is uniquely well placed to allow us to do this - ever since its founding in 1753 the Museum has collected and displayed the world.  Through 100 objects from across the Museum's collection we will tell a global history - A History of the World.

So, what objects have we chosen, and how did we pick them?

You can find them on the A History of the World website, and on display in the Museum. As you'll see we didn't choose them simply because they are beautiful - although there are some stunning objects among them: the Swimming Reindeer, the Standard of Ur, or the Mold Gold Cape.

You'll also see that they're not in the series for their fame - although there are some celebrities, such as the colossal Statue of Ramesses II. Neither did we choose the most obviously impressive objects - in fact some are very small indeed, like the Indus seal.

We chose them because of the stories they can tell.

The objects I'll be talking about in each programme tell us what people were doing, what they were thinking, how they lived and why they did what they did. In many cases objects, especially in societies without writing, are the only evidence we have to connect us with the people of the past.

And so we travel through time and place from two million years ago right up to the present day. In fact, the final object has yet to be chosen but will be selected later in the year to represent the world as we move further into a new century.

Along the way we look at the connections and contacts between societies that show how the story of the world is the story of the whole world.

That's a story the Museum has been examining since it opened its doors to the public 250 years ago. Now, through the website, the whole world can come and look at the objects in the series - a natural progression of the Museum's original purpose, to give free access to all 'studious and curious persons', from across the globe.

 In addition I'm delighted that over 350 of our museum colleagues across the UK are joining in, nominating and displaying objects from their own collections which tell a local and global history.
We also want you to show us your objects, to upload them to the website and tell us the personal, local and global stories that connect you to the rest of the world, or show your place in that world.

That's what A History of the World in 100 objects aims to do and through this ambitious project, on air and online, I hope that visitors and listeners will use museum objects, and their own objects, to construct their own history of the world - a true world history.


  • Comment number 1.

  • Comment number 2.

    I am finding the radio programmes extremely evocative and have rekindled my curiosity for objects and choreography of their use. I still have detailed memories of my real first instance when I realised that objects had meaning, power and beauty. It was when I was a art student and I visited the travelling exhibition of Paolozzi’s Lost Magic Kingdoms where I realised that objects had a terrible beauty and like the walking stick left by Mortimer at 221b had hidden meanings that needed to be teased out.

    The one museum that that I believe should or could also most be one object in the 100 years project is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which I used to visit as both a student and a lecturer religiously every two to three months. The object I always remember is in the spells and magic section, where there is a small silver bottle that contains a captured witch. I look forward to more interesting programmes

  • Comment number 3.

    Could the podcasts be made with the phot of the object as part of the podcasts, either as logo (to replace the current logo), or as an enhanced podcast, so that we do not have to be at a computer at all times, and can enjoy all what is to be seen.

    Kind regards,

  • Comment number 4.

    A massively hyped programme - Radio 4 seem to have raised it to the status of a flagship programme for 2010 what with all the tv advance promos etc - but, in spite of all the money that must have been spent on it and all the hard work and research effort that has gone into making it, it is made almost unlistenable to as a result of the dire repetition of the incredibly tedious 'theme' music that is overlaid across large chunks of both the beginning and the end of each 15 minute episode. It's only 15 minutes! Just let the wonderful material speak for itself!

    But no. Presumably it was thought that thematic 'mood' music of this sort was de rigueur for a flagship programme of this sort. Presumably it was considered that some kind of musical 'theme' would add value to the programme through its stirring evocation of the vastness of time through which the series will journey! Well, for me it does nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it detracts hugely, it is so incredibly irritating! Who on earth came up with this theme and didn't think it would start to grate when repeated on a daily basis over 100 episodes? Not to mention how faintly ridiculous it will start to sound as the series progresses towards more modern times. I'd love to hear Neil M discussing, say, the influence of the Moog synthesizer on early electronic music, juxtaposed with the mystical woman and those dire pan-pipes or whatever they are. Or will the series music at some point take an evolutionary leap forward along with the objects being discussed? For what might have been a great series, this dire misjudgement on the music front represents a massive case of shooting oneself in the foot on the part of the production team.

    I enjoyed listening to the programme for the first week or two, but I've had to give up as I could no longer take the cliched, hackneyed, just generally awful musical intrusion. I've read suggestions elsewhere that the programme style might have had in mind the programme's use for teaching in schools. The style of introduction of the object for each episode - which combines with the music to produce a massive doubly whammy of irritation - could certainly give credence to that suggestion. Having said that, the programme content has struck me as generally being aimed at an adult audience. Given that sex was a theme of one of the episodes within the very first week, if this series was partly aimed at schools then there must have been classrooms full either of somewhat befuddled or shocked ten year olds or of sniggering or embarrassed teenagers up and down the country. If it's not intended for schools, then, for an adult audience, the manner of introducing each episode's object is highly irritating and condescending. If it's trying to cater to both adults and schools, then it is clearly trying to target too wide a target audience/demographic, and failing as a result. (Indeed, a good many school pupils would more than likely find the music and the style of object introduction equally irritating and condescending themselves).

    A criticism levelled by some has been that radio is not the medium for a programme about objects. To me this is utter nonsense - much of the content of the episodes I did listen to has been fascinating, and there was no need to have a visual image of the object in front of you for this to be the case. But the whole has been made unbearable by the awful style diminishing the often fascinating content. Such a shame!

  • Comment number 5.

    I would like to congratulate the makers of this series for a truly inspiring series that has enthralled both my 10 year old daughter and me. We live in Hong Kong with friends and colleagues from diverse cultural backgrounds, which has been an education in itself, but these programmes enlighten, inform and delight us every day and make us far more aware of the cultural heritage of so many different people and the history of ideas that are still relevant to understanding the world we live in today. The superlative erudition of the authors and contributors to the series provides a sharp and pithy overview of an historical event or era that is thought-provoking and challenging to our established world picture. I have recommended the series to my daughter's school as well as to a number of parents here who homeschool. It is also brave and inspiring to broadcast these programmes on the radio. There is relatively little on BBC radio 4 that can captivate an audience of younger (and future) listeners and I hope that this series opens up a new avenue for learning for the younger generation. I sympathise with the listener who finds the opening to each episode condescending (and perhaps it was a shame not to use that airtime for one or two extra pieces of information about each object) but one has to balance this minor criticism against the extraordinarily valuable contribution that this series makes to general knowledge and understanding.

  • Comment number 6.

    Thank heavens for the magic of podcasts.I have enjoyed every one so far, even if not always agreeing with the concepts put forward about the evolution of man, and his attitudes to religion. The sense of the spiritual is lacking, and in its place is academic observation. Nevertheless, the information has been fascinating, and the inclusion of modern life and pundits has been illuminating. I look forward to the next series, and can't believe we have had 30 already!

  • Comment number 7.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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