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A History of the World in 100 Objects

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Mark Damazer Mark Damazer 10:00, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

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Today we unveiled details of the most ambitious and exciting factual project since I became Controller of Radio 4. It's 'A History of The World in 100 objects' presented and written by Neil MacGregor - the Director of the British Museum.

In 100 separate 15-minute programmes Neil talks about a single object in the British Museum Collection that can tell us about a host of different things. There will, of course, be a description of the object but most of each programme will focus on areas where Radio excels as a medium - on how the object was made, its political, economic and cultural significance, how the object came to be in the collection - and so on. There are a hatful of stories and ideas in every programme. I have heard those that have been made so far and they are wonderful.

The series will look at objects from all over the world - and will span tens of thousands of years of human struggle and achievement. Every object will have been man-made. That is what makes this different. Most histories are based on documents as sources. This takes as a starting point that the craft and inspiration involved in making things can reveal history in a different and complementary way.

We have changed the schedule to try and give the series a wider audience than if it had been placed at 1545 - which is where most of our other big narrative histories have been broadcast (Amanda Vickery's A History of Private Life and David Reynolds' Empire of Liberty series about America being the latest examples). These have been terrific and it is in part their success that has encouraged us to try something bolder for 'A History of The World.' (AHOW)

So for 20 weeks next year AHOW will broadcast at 0945 and repeated at 1945. It won't be in consecutive weeks. We will be running the series in three tranches during 2010. But when it is running - it will occupy the 'Book of The Week' slot in the morning and the repeat of the Woman's Hour drama in the evening - immediately after 'Front Row.'

'Book of The Week ' is a vital part of Radio 4 and frequently scintillates - and I have no doubt that some of the audience will feel its absence. But I think every now and then I need to adapt the schedule and I am sure that the series will be terrific. The Woman's Hour drama - currently wonderfully filled by 'Our Mutual Friend' - will still be broadcast at 1045.

There is a great deal more to say about AHOW. It is no longer simply about Radio 4 and the British Museum. The force of the idea has captured many other programme makers around the BBC - on BBC television, on CBBC, on the World Service and throughout the BBC's Nations and Regions. And it will be tied together by a special website - where you will be able to see the objects in splendid detail - and where we are creating opportunities for the public to contribute too.

One final word - it's not been a typical BBC project. We have worked from the outset in partnership with the British Museum. We and they have been working on it for over three-and-a-half years. We could not have done it without Neil MacGregor and the British Museum as a whole. It's been a vastly stimulating affair - and I hope you enjoy its fruits. It all begins on January 18th...

Mark Damazer is Controller of BBC Radio 4


  • Comment number 1.

    I just checked out the British Museum's coordinated Press Release on 'A History of the World' (AHOW).


    I look forward to a revision of world history by Neil MacGregor. It strikes me that objects are a good way to begin, Mark. I wonder what hundred objects have been selected?

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm really really excited by this-and if it's as good as A History of a Private Life then there's a treat in store! I went to the British Museum for the first time last month (a northerner who intends to get down to London more often in the future) and was overwhelmed by it-I'd love to hear even more about the wonderful objects there.

  • Comment number 3.

    What a wonderful idea. I'm really looking forward to it!

    I hope you will be putting it on a pod-cast as well as live broadcast.

  • Comment number 4.

    Yes please to a podcast - for those of us who travel a lot, podcasts are invaluable to make sure that we don't miss an episode

  • Comment number 5.

    I am so excited by this project and cannot wait to listen! I would like to add to the chorus of requests that this programme be made available via podcast. I live in the US, and this is by far the most convenient way for me to listen to BBC programming with my family.

  • Comment number 6.

    This looks fantastic! Speaking for 'people like me', it's about time we broke out of our eurocentric historical perspectives. But does the programme acknowledge how and why the world's cultural treasures ended up in a Victorian museum in London? That'd make for interesting viewing - maybe for another programme though...

    Whenever my Canadian friends (I live in Vancouver) ask me what the point of the BBC is, I point them in the direction of offerings like this. Radio 4 remains a beacon in a cultural night-time of philistine pap.

    And yes please, make a podcast version. Hell, I'd even buy the audiobook!

  • Comment number 7.

    Dave Kitson, dave, Iolanthe Rosa and Andrew Dunn, I've just asked the interactive team working on A History of the World and they confirm that there will be a podcast and that all 100 programmes will - unprecedentedly - be available online for a full two years from the first broadcast.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 8.

    I am greatly looking forward to this programme and the 19:45 time slot suits me fine. Great news about the podcast in post 7.

  • Comment number 9.

    As a volunteer "eyeOpener" guide at the British Museum I am very excited about this project. Like anyone else I am not aware of what objects have been chosen yet but expect some of them to include ones we use on the tours and will be able to link the tours into the programmes. I shall encourage those who come on the tours to listen to the broadcasts and hopefully those who enjoy the braodcasts will be encouraged to come on the free tours. More details can be found on the museum website.

  • Comment number 10.

    Could someone let me know what the music is behind the TV promo piece for this series?

  • Comment number 11.

    I want to congratulate you for the beautiful and powerful films that are used to advertise this series on BBC TV. They really are stunning and pieces of art in themselves. And the music is also fantastic. These films have really made me sit up and take note of the programmes to come and I will definitely now listen in. Well done BBC!

  • Comment number 12.

    Have just listed toi the first episode - Great, and am delighted that for the next 20 weeks I can enjoy this programme each morning. PLEASE PLEASE BBC once its complete, can we have it as an unabridged audio book?

  • Comment number 13.

    For everyone asking for a podcast of this series, it looks like they're doing one:-

  • Comment number 14.

    It is encouraged we 'exhibit' our own, or suggest, artefacts that could be considered pertinent to “The History of the World in a Hundred Objects” over and above the hundred already identified by The British Museum.

    May I 'exhibit' a condom (assuming its not already in ‘the hundred group’) which, with its historic usage, is a contrary* artefact that by objectivity and function epitomises an implicit diminution of, or, non-history of homo sapiens?

    I.e. It’s a self-destruct artefact.

    *as in rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite “Con-trair-ry”)

  • Comment number 15.

    I've enjoyed listening to the podcasts. One suggestion would be to have an image of the object instead of the artwork, allowing listeners using mp3 players with colour screens to view the object in question.

  • Comment number 16.

    @Rob You can submit your own objects on the History of the World web site. Go ahead and submit a condom. I have no influence over which objects are accepted but it would certainly be an interesting addition to the collection so far.

    @Asciarius, I'm passing your suggestion to the podcast team. Sounds eminently sensible to me but I'm not sure if it's technically achievable.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 17.

    Am also hooked on this series and have twice visited the BM with my ipod to listen to the podcast and gaze simultaneously. Even though the photos on the website are excellent, it's very special being able to stand in front of the object. We were able to hold a similar piece of rock to that used for the Olduvai hand axe at the Hands On desk.

    Are there plans to produce a book or perhaps sets of post cards for the objects?

  • Comment number 18.

    Asciarius I've spoken to the Audio Services team here at BBC Audio & Music. They're the people who look after the podcasts. Sadly, they've explained to me that the way podcasts work means you can only have one item of artwork associated with a podcast - so we couldn't attach a picture of the object to each individual programme in the podcast. Sorry!

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 19.

    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 20.

    AHOW a great series,
    even better because I can listen on iPlayer or podcasts and look at the website information. I would not get a chance to hear it all as live radio, or the benefit of the web links.

    "We and they have been working on it for over three-and-a-half years. "
    Lets hope the BBC has similar projects in the pipeline. It has made good use of the newer technologies to add value to Radio.

  • Comment number 21.

    Although I think I'm unlikely to convert you to a fan of the music, alphaNapper, I'd like to commend to you this fascinating post from the AHOW blog. You'll learn, among other things, that its composer, Steven Faux, used ancient instruments and that the music is actually subtly different for every single programme.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 22.

    Fantastic project !
    At 15 min, its just the right length of time to "introduce you" to the object. How you go after that point is up to you.

    Love it !

  • Comment number 23.

    No No No No NO NO

    I normally have Radio Four on from when I wake up to when I go to bed. Yet again I find myself turning it off at 09:45 AM and 19:45 PM.

    Whether it's the monotony of this effected upper class Anglo / Caledonian accent or that dreadful music ....I'm not sure.

    whatever it is it irratates the pants off me.

    It's such a mistake to put it back into the time slot where 1000s of people initially complained about it.

  • Comment number 24.

    In case you haven't visited, the A History of the World web site is getting better all the time, with all of the objects so far now available in 'deep zoom' so you can get a really close look at them and hundreds of other objects contributed by listeners and regional museums. And you can grab the free podcast so you can keep all the programmes for as long as you like.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 25.

    Its a marvellous series BUT (something that happens all too often with the bbcs output) it is overwhelmed by the irritating egotistical and irrelevant music. Im sure its all carefully and sympatehtically planned and played on "authentic" instruments; but it is just annoying and it goes on and on.

    Why was it considered necessary?

  • Comment number 26.

    richard, the music does divide opinion. There's a fascinating interview with Steven Faux, the composer, on the History of the World blog. You'll learn, among other things, that every object's music is different.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 27.

    Neil MacGregor mistaken.
    I can't be alone in realising that, in his final instalment,Neil MacGregor made a major error in saying that Edison invented the light bulb. He should know better - it was invented by Joseph Swann, a scotsman, twenty years before Edison perfected his.

  • Comment number 28.

    richard. Music inserts always, please; time to savour the rich portrayal of objects and text, and delight in it. Just as music and art in themselves need pauses rest and breathe between the richer areas.

    Meanwhile, thank you for such a production.


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