British Museum and BBC tell History of the World in 100 Objects

By Culture24 Staff | 18 January 2010
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A photo of a man in a shirt and tie inside a museum

Of the list of domestic institutions who could make a decent fist of telling the history of the world, the British Museum is particularly well-placed under the leadership of charismatic Director Neil MacGregor (above).

Interviewers frequently recount the ebullient Glaswegian perusing his galleries with the wide-eyed fervour of a novice observer.

"The museum should be like Gulliver's travels," he has said, aiming for a "decentring voyage".

He once compared the global value of his 256-year-old "museum of societies" with the BBC's World Service, and his narration of A History of the World in 100 Objects – an ambitious series of programmes beginning today on Radio 4 – is, he says, "the fulfilment of an enlightenment dream".

A picture of an Egyptian mummy

Hornedjitef, the coffin of an Egyptian priest, became the first featured object on the Radio 4 program at the heart of the project

"Parliament set up the British Museum to allow all studious and curious persons, both native and foreign-born, to construct their own history of the world and find their place in it," he points out, stressing the importance of listener input.

"As the series develops everybody across the UK and across the world will be able to participate, using not just the things in museums, but their own objects as well, to tell their history of the world."

Encapsulating discoveries in Tanzania from two million years ago to credit cards (the choice of the final object in the timeline is still up for debate), the chronological chart was launched with Hornedjitef, an Egyptian mummy of a priest in a coffin encountered by MacGregor when he first visited the Museum as an eight-year-old.

A photo of an ancient elephant tusk on a piece of dark blue cloth

A decorated baby elephant's tusk from the Royal Naval Museum is one of 10 objects chosen for A History of the World in the Hampshire region

Hornedjitef reckoned a casket designed by his own hands would guarantee his holy spirit a jaunty navigation to the afterlife, but it's ended up in the no less supernatural realms of London's landmark museum.

As the first subject of the 15-minute programmes, it is discussed by Egyptologist John Taylor, Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif and Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen.

Future contributors include Sir Bob Geldof, Grayson Perry and Seamus Heaney in a run which takes on different themes each week.

A picture of the front cover of a political agreement

The Good Friday Agreement, signalling the end of the most damaging period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, appears in the 1975-2010 section. It is on display at Bagenal's Castle in Newry

"The partnership with the British Museum has brought the most exciting history project in my five years as Controller," says Radio 4 overlord Mark Damazer, lauding the "audacious" and "thrilling" idea.

"It has been endlessly stimulating to see two creative organisations, animated by public service, coming together."

It doesn't end on the airwaves – 350 venues are taking part in accompanying activities across the country, inspired by omnibus editions planned for MacGregor's beloved World Service and a 13-part CBBC series starting this month.

A photo of a sculpture of an angel with a paint pot over its head in a museum

Banksy's Paintpot Angel, installed by the urban art superstar in Bristol's City Museum, features at the contemporary end of the timeline

An interactive website will archive everything in a "digital museum" curated by the public, and a Culture Show special on BBC Two will involve Sir David Attenborough, John Humphrys, playwright Stephen Poliakoff and a special report from the Isle of Man by Mark Kermode.

The campaign is also spreading out regionally, where individual History of the World schemes will explore the heritage of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Seamus Boyd, BBC Project Manager for the Nations and English Regions, promised "a truly fascinating" assortment, targeting 10 local objects in each area.

A photo of a rosary bead necklace in dark brown

Rosary beads found on Henry VIII's Mary Rose in 1538

"Some of them may have great monetary value, others little or none, but they're priceless in how they bring to life moments from history," he says.

"This initial collection is just the blueprint to which we hope viewers and listeners will add their own objects and help to create a truly unique and vibrant tapestry of the past."

Main Radio 4 programme airs 9.45am-10am and 7.45pm-8pm (repeat) Monday-Friday. Listen live on the BBC Radio 4 iPlayer.

Visit the A History of the World website to listen to the programmes, see the objects, search for hundreds of others from museums across the country and download Podcasts.

Read the blog by the British Museum and BBC teams, or highlight the campaign on your website via the badges and widgets page.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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