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When objects speak

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Will Gompertz | 10:59 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010

A solar-powered lamp and mobile-phone charger kit is the object that's most representative of the world we live in today. At least that is what we are being told by the British Museum's Neil MacGregor and his curatorial team behind BBC Radio 4's A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Solar-powered lamp

They say it was chosen as the 100th object in the series because:

"It represents a global preoccupation. The search for an affordable and sustainable power source is of importance to today's global population as well as affecting future generations in both environmental terms as well as economic."

Fair enough - although one person to whom I spoke scoffed and said it was the sort of thing one finds in those Innovations catalogues that come free with the Sunday papers. And there is something of the gimmick about it.

Not the object so much, but the selecting of any object from today to sit within a grand and scholarly history of the world. It is perhaps the job of history and future generations to decide which of today's objects warrant special attention, not the current crop of curators at the British Museum.

It seems an odd note on which to finish what has been a terrific series. There have been over 10 million downloads of the programmes, about half of which have been from abroad. Hundreds of other museums from around the country have taken part, as have individuals and schools.

It is an excellent example of two public institutions - the BBC and the British Museum - coming together in a partnership that delivers to the public valuable content that either organisation working on its own could not have supplied and distributed.

The series has been compared with, Kenneth Clarke's late-1960s BBC series of the history of art. There are similarities: both MacGregor and Clark are distinguished academics that have run major British cultural institutions including the National Gallery. Both are significant BBC production projects. And both are dominated by the authorial voice of the individual academic.

There is one very big difference. Civilisation was a television series, while History of the World in 100 Objects has been broadcast on radio. Given the way that technology developed, you might have thought it would be the other way round. But radio has served the MacGregor series very well.

Neil McGregor with the then controller of Radio 4 Mark Damazer, November 2009

Neil McGregor with the then controller of Radio 4 Mark Damazer, November 2009

First and foremost it foregrounds his excellent scripts. It is a challenge to tell a complex story on radio without having pictures to help carry the load. Such is MacGregor's skill as a writer that there were times when I found his sentence structure, precision of language and seamless shifting from one thought to another more compelling than the object he was describing. It is a masterclass in writing for radio.

And radio was the ideal medium for his message. The objects that he was describing were merely props. We did not need to see them. His real purpose was to tell the stories locked inside the things. The history of the world is not best told through pre-existing books or verifiable accounts. Even where such documents exist, they are partial and subjective.

Objects are much more reliable story-tellers. They will not favour the winner of a battle over the loser or a master over his slave. As McGregor says, "objects bring a voice to the voiceless".

And MacGregor has brought a voice to them.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Like all list mostly they reflect a combination of the special interests of those selecting them and their ignorance.

    Whilst a solar powered lamp (as you and they describe it) may seem a daft idea - after all when the sun it out why do you need a lamp? The key is that there is a battery that is charged by the sun and an efficient light source that discharges the battery. To describe the 100th item as a solar powered lamp is just silly!

  • Comment number 2.

    ''...one person to whom I spoke scoffed and said it was the sort of thing one finds in those Innovations catalogues that come free with the Sunday papers. And there is something of the gimmick about it.''

    10 out of 10.

    ''[it] may seem a daft idea - after all when the sun it out why do you need a lamp?''

    ...and all the way up to 11.

    I thoroughly enjoyed those programmes I caught on the radio. Very well done, McGregor is a master story-teller.

  • Comment number 3.

    About 3Bn people on the planet without reliable access to mains electricity (but who own a mobile) would give their left arm (or a child more likely) for one of these.

    The scoffers of this choice do so from a nice warm wired-up house in a developed nation.

  • Comment number 4.

    The point surely is not whether or not said object is a worthy piece of technology (indeed it is), but rather whether said object could be said to be a metaphor, be representative of, or in some sense be indicative, or sum up what is particular about the 21st century. Or not. A solar-powered anything isn't typical or peculiar or transformatory of 21st century world, but rather allows people in hitherto under-developed areas of the globe to participate, albeit in a rather meagre way, in the modern world. A flushing toilet or mains connection to a network power supply would equally be as transformatory to those people in need of said lamp. Indeed any singular object can't sum up an age of globalization, communication, interdependence unless it is itself just a part of that connectedness. The one thing we all thought of when we were challenged to think of a 21st Century object is the obvious choice. indeed, the judges hardly tried to disguise their "cheat" acknowledging it as the quintessential 21st century icon: THE MOBILE PHONE.

 

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