The Holiday Season is traditionally a time of festivities with friends and family—parties, sweets, tinsel and song! (Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere, so it’s no wonder that we celebrate the long, dark stretch of hours with festive lights, blazing Yule logs, glittering candles and copious amounts liquid good cheer.) And of course, it's a time for exchanging gifts. Now, many of you still have your gaily-wrapped gifts to open, but I received an early present from a friend who loves history just as much as I do. And it’s such a fun thing that I want to share!
It’s a book—ha, no surprise there why I’m waxing poetic! A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 100 OBJECTS by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, started out as a joint venture with the BBC Radio 4 as a 20-week series of 5 short (15 minutes) programs per week, focusing on one item from the Museum’s collection in each spotlight. The mission was to tell the history of the world through 100 objects, using just the British Museum’s resources. Well, much to the delighted surprise of both the curators and the broadcasters, the series was a runaway hit. So MacGregor and his colleagues decided to put the show in book format.
Oh, joy. 707 pages of it, to be exact. Yes, it’s heavy, but hey, it’s carrying the weight of the world between those glorious red covers! (The U. S. edition is red beneath the dust jacket.) MacGregor starts out his preface by saying, “Telling history through things is what museums are for.” Tipping his hat to the Parliamentary Act of 1753, which directed that the Museum be “aimed at universality,” he goes on to say that the rules of this intellectual game were as follows—the objects had to range from the beginning of human history (approximately 2 million years ago) to the present. And the goal was “to tell the history . . . by deciphering the messages which objects communicate across time—messages about peoples and places, environments and interactions, about different moments in history and about our own time as we reflect on it.”
And then, MacGregor is off and running through the centuries. The richly detailed photograph (or photographs) of each object is accompanied by a short essay. The text is is very informative—but far more than that it’s wonderfully entertaining. MacGregor’s enthusiasm and love for history—and his delightful sense of humor—dances over the pages as he describes the object and why he and his staff feel it is significant. Of added interest is that he often asks an expert in a specific field, but not necessarily a scholar—a sculptor or an economist—to write a paragraph within the essay saying what the object means to him or her. It provides a fascinating perspective.
The range of objects is breathtaking. MacGregor covers a dazzling array of cultures from every corner of the globe, and the objects themselves represent an incredible array of mediums. Mummies, stone tools, clocks, tapestries, coins, woodcuts, jewelry, bronzes, pottery, to name just a few. As the New York Times book review says, “These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior.”
I’m up to #30 on the List (it’s arranged chronologically, except for the first item, which is a mummy—a nod to the British Museum’s most famous attractions!) A nice thing is you can read a few each day, as they are stand-alone essays, and so go at your own pace. I’m enjoying it immensely—and for those of you who still have a few last-minute gift hints to drop . . .well, hint, hint!
It’s wonderful to see history striking such a chord with the general public, isn’t it? The BBC radio broadcasts regularly attracted an audience of nearly four million listeners, while the podcast downloads of the programs have totaled over 10,441,884. And the museum curators are delighted that the public has uploaded well over 3,240 objects as their choices for the Top 100 List. The success of the British Museum’s idea has also encouraged other museums to come up with their own Lists, thus engaging the public in a fun and interactive experience of history.
You can explore more about the 100 Objects here at the wonderful British Museum website, which including, podcasts, blogs and an interactive visual display of the featured items.
Okay, so now let’s us have a little fun! What one item (or maybe two) would you put on a History of the World in 100 Objects list? I would put the Gutenberg Bible and the first Apple home computer for the way moveable type and simple-to-use advanced technology revolutionized the dissemination of information.