World view - Museums Association

World view

A History of the World in 100 Objects has been a major undertaking for the British Museum and the BBC. John Holt hears how it has benefited regional museums
John Holt
As JD Hill began the groundwork for BBC Radio 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, ploughing through history and archaeology books to unearth treasures that would tell the story of global civilisation, he made a life-affirming discovery.

“It was an extraordinary stone pestle from Papua New Guinea, shaped like a bird and thousands of years old,” says the British Museum’s (BM) lead curator charged with establishing the intellectual scope of the entire project. “I remember thinking: ‘If only we had one of those.’”

Little did he know at the time that said object was actually lurking – a little unloved and overlooked – in the Pacific collection along the corridor; practitioner and pestle were soon united and another giant step for humankind was signed up for its 15 minutes of radio fame.

A History of the World in 100 Objects has been a voyage of discovery for everyone concerned with the project, not just the combined legions of listeners and museum visitors whose imaginations have been kindled by daily lectures delivered in Neil MacGregor’s dulcet, yet slightly authoritarian, tones.

“At the very beginning, some three-and-a-half years ago, the project was seen as a continuation of the process of reshaping the British Museum as a place where you can explore world history,” says Hill, whose aim was to use objects “to address traditional audiences in a wholly untraditional way”.

He says: “Talking about objects on the radio was a risky proposition, but we knew we could use the power and range of the BBC’s services to gain new audiences for collections. Years ago, many people thought that the development of museum websites would negate the need to visit the institutions. The opposite turned out to be true.”

The list took some two years to finalise, with the emphasis firmly placed on strong objects with even stronger stories to tell about the wider world; indeed, when Hill started to compile his line-up, he originally didn’t want any British objects there at all.

There were heated debates behind closed doors at Great Russell Street as individuals made their cases for inclusion. Hill says: “The vast chronological spread led, for example, to some interesting discussions about whether the European Renaissance was an important piece of global history. I had some ‘if looks could kill’ moments.”

Hill is positive about the process. “Just to get people from different departments and specialisms in a museum this size to sit down and discuss such issues is very rare. The process has made us think generally in new, non-departmental ways.”

The idea of extending the project across the UK and beyond using the partnerships and networks of the British Museum and the BBC was first proposed by Frances Carey, the museum’s senior consultant for public engagement.

The idea was based on a previous Radio 4 series, Voices, which utilised the BBC’s nations and regions operation to record the different ways the English language was spoken in the UK.

This time around, regional TV and radio stations have hooked up with their local museums to spread the word and compile their own top ten object lists; local communities were invited not only to find out what treasures they had on their doorsteps, but also to upload their own personal choices to a vast interactive website that itself took two years to develop.

“The objects don’t have to be grand – indeed, many of the things in the BM’s 100 wouldn’t fall into that category. There are some very humble things that told some remarkable tales,” says Carey.

“People were often worried their objects had only local significance. I wanted to demonstrate that wasn’t the case by telling stories that had both local and global resonance. Debates, arguments or new scientific methods of investigation can change the meanings of objects. We can learn new things about items that have sat in museums since the 19th century. They don’t have to be stunningly beautiful to work on that level.”

As a case in point, Carey highlights the inclusion of a broken rocking horse submitted by Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, part of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. It dates from a children’s music hall performance in the town in 1883 when a stampede for free toys led to 183 children being crushed to death against the doors.

“As a result of the disaster, emergency exits in every building were subsequently designed to open outwards. Similarly, another object that completely transcends its materiality is the crematorium chamber bolt from the Bergen-Belsen camp put forward by the Rifles (Berkshire and Wiltshire) Museum in Salisbury,” adds Carey.

Picking up the baton for Nottingham City Museums and Galleries was collections manager Ann Inscker, who supervised the service’s own search for its top objects while liaising with the regional BBC operations on a series of events and broadcasts.

“Our choices were very democratic, with everyone invited to suggest objects from their collections and then we voted along the lines of the BBC criteria,” says Inscker. “It was little bit like the X Factor for curators.”

As well as encouraging visitors to reacquaint themselves with their local museums, the institutions themselves are being galvanised by the project. A long-term knowledge transfer project regarding the advertising archives of locally based tobacco giant John Player had stalled before Nottingham museums realised the History of the World scheme was just the kick-start it needed.

“The archive had to be treated like an archaeological dig as the cases had collapsed in on each other,” says Inscker, who chose a cigarette packet as one of the ten Nottingham objects alongside a Raleigh Chopper bicycle, which were also made in the city.

“We filmed a piece about the bikes with the BBC,” says Inscker. “One of the museum assistants who had previously worked at Raleigh was interviewed and I talked about the iconic Chopper design, issues about its stability at the time and how people had the disposable income to buy into such an unusual brand.

“While all this was happening, members of the Chopper Collectors Society rode around us on their brightly-coloured bikes. It made me feel slightly queasy.”

Other items put forward by the city and county include Charles I’s toothpick: it was given to the man who looked after the king the night before he was executed.

There have been other knock-on effects: new cases and mounts have been made for the display of the objects and many more people have visited the collections.

Inscker says: “It has also helped us flag up to our councillors that we have embraced this opportunity and are maximising our publicity and marketing efforts as well as bringing some marvellous items from behind the scenes to tell some great stories about the city.”

Around the country, museums reported record crowds during the February half-term; there were, for example, double the usual number of visitors to the Teapots and Textiles events at Preston’s Harris Museum & Art Gallery.

“There were talks, handling sessions, art activities and tea parties,” says the Harris’ programmes manager Sue Latimer. “The BBC presenters communicated a real sense of what we have to offer visitors, which is an invaluable message to get across. We see the BBC link providing a range of opportunities through the year.

“Our favourite object is Harris’ Teetotal Teapot. Teetotalism was founded in Preston in the 1830s and became a worldwide movement. The word teetotal has nothing to do with tea, but I like the play on words. The more you delve, the more unexpected stories there are.”

Amid all the plaudits, however, there have been some dissenting voices about the project. Some critics wondered whether listeners had the staying power to tune in every day, while others were concerned about just whose story of the world the BBC was relaying.

“I wonder if the BBC was preaching to the converted by running it on Radio 4,” says museum consultant Tristram Besterman. “The question we all asked when we first heard about the series was: ‘Why isn’t it on television?’

“It’s not good enough to say there is website access to the objects; my 90-year-old mother listens to the series and has a very visual mind but, alas, no internet access.”

Besterman also feels there is room for more voices alongside MacGregor and the chosen commentators.

“When they talked about a hand-axe from Olduvai, for example, I feel it would have been enterprising and interesting to have had the voice of a Kenyan scholar or curator to represent what could loosely be called ‘the source community’ to explain what the object means to them and their place in the world.

“The chosen stories do seem to be firmly under the control of the British Museum so the subtle underpinning of the series is the idea of the universal museum with the BM as gatekeeper of the narrative,” Besterman says.

Also under-represented were the groups and individuals who believe the museum is holding on to objects that are not its property, he adds.

Marlen Taffarello of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles listened with interest to the episode featuring what the museum used to call the Elgin Marbles (the committee claims the change of nomenclature as a victory in its campaign).

“The programme explained the story of a particular piece of sculpture but it did not really explain the controversy of the Parthenon sculptures’ continued and unnecessary division,” says Taffarello.

Philip Sellars, the BBC series’ executive producer says the marbles were debated in editorial meetings and the ownership controversy was addressed in the opening minute of the programme.

“We haven’t shied away from these points of view,” Sellars says. “We had people on to say the Benin bronzes belong with the indigenous community that made them, for example.

"But in terms of looking at what stories these objects can tell us, it seemed the story of the Parthenon was not about who owns what, as that became an issue much later. It was about understanding what they were for in the first place and, therefore, why they are important to the Greek nation.”

Away from the controversies, Sellars’ job was to ensure all the scripts walked the fine lines between journalism, entertainment and academia, with the final editorial say resting with the BBC.

“We set out to explode that slightly lazy western myth that the Mediterranean is the centre of the world,” he says, “Our job was to refocus peoples’ views of where the most interesting parts of history can be. You can do that on the radio in a way you can’t on TV or in books, so it is very good for the transmission of ideas.”

John Holt is a freelance journalist

How a radio series galvanised curators

A History of the World in 100 Objects features 100 programmes broadcast on Radio 4 and is written and presented by Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. The first 15-minute long programme was aired
on 18 January.

The project involves collaborations between regional and national BBC networks, schools, museums and audiences.

Museums across the UK have joined forces with the BBC to choose more than 600 objects that reflect world history as it relates to their area’s perspective. Stories about these objects have been featuring on regional radio and television.

BBC Cymru Wales, BBC Scotland and BBC Northern Ireland have also been involved in the project.

More than 350 museums and galleries have registered in the BBC website that supports A History of the World in 100 Objects. The BBC and the British Museum have created lesson plans that focus on a selection of objects chosen for the project.

The public have also been choosing objects they own and adding them to the A History of the World website.

The project includes a 13-part series for BBC’s children programming called Relic: Guardians of the Museum. Representatives from the British Museum and the BBC will discuss A History of the World at the Museums Association conference in Manchester.


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