Creative impulses: A history of the world in 100 objects





Man is one of a number of animals that make things, but man is the only one that depends for its very survival on the things he has made. That simple observation is the starting point for an ambitious history programme, "A History of the World in 100 Objects", which BBC Radio 4 will begin broadcasting on January 18th. A joint venture four years in the making between the British Museum (BM) and the BBC, the series features 100 15-minute radio broadcasts, a separate 13 episodes in which children visit the museum at night and try to unlock its mysteries, a BBC World Service package of tailored omnibus editions for broadcasting around the world and an interactive digital programme involving 350 museums in Britain which will be available free over the internet.

The presenter is Neil MacGregor, the BM's director, who has moved from the study of art to the contemplation of things. "Objects take you into the thought world of the past," he says. "When you think about the skills required to make something you begin to think about the brain that made it." From the first moment (the ghostly magnetic pulse from a star that exploded in the summer of 1054, as recorded at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics) this series is radio at its best: inventive, clever, and yet always light on its feet.

Mr MacGregor is less interested in advertising the marvels of the 250-year-old universal museum he heads than in considering who made the objects he discusses. That involves drawing together evidence of how connected seemingly disparate societies have always been and rebalancing the histories of the literate and the non-literate. "Victors write history; the defeated make things," he says. This is an especially important distinction when considering Africa. The great Encyclopedia Britannica" of 1911 assumed that Africa had no history because it had no written history. The statues of black pharaohs that Mr MacGregor discusses in an early programme, for example, are the best visual evidence that a Nubian tribe once seized control of ancient Egypt and that Africans ruled over the Nile for more than a century.

Of the 100 objects, only one has not been selected yet. Mr MacGregor is waiting until the last possible moment to pick out the best symbol of our own time. Suggestions, please, on a postcard to: British Museum, London WC1B 3DG.

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