By Carol Vogel
the new york times
It was a project so audacious that it took 100 curators four years to complete it. The goal: to tell the history of the world through 100 objects culled from the British Museum’s sprawling collections. The result of endless scholarly debates was unveiled, object by chronological object, on a BBC Radio 4 program in early 2010, narrated by Neil MacGregor, director of the museum. Millions of listeners tuned in to hear his colorful stories – so many listeners that the BBC, together with the British Museum, published a hit book of the series, “The History of the World in 100 Objects,” which is being published in the United States on Monday.
These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior. The oldest – a 2 million-year-old chopping tool made from stone found in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania – was “the beginning of the toolbox,” MacGregor said. About a bird-shaped pestle found by the Aikora River in New Guinea around 6000-2000 B.C., he wrote, “The history of our most modern cereals and vegetables begins around 10,000 years ago,” adding, “It was a time of newly domesticated animals, powerful gods, dangerous weather, good sex and even better food.”
Discussing David Hockney’s 1966 etching of two men lying in bed side by side, MacGregor notes, “It raises perplexing questions about what societies find acceptable or unacceptable, about the limits of tolerance and individual freedom, and about shifting moral structures over thousands of years of human history.”
As the program progressed, the choice of the last object became a subject of popular debate – around dinner tables, on the radio, in blogs and newspapers – giving the final episode a cliffhanger feel.
“There was obviously a soap-opera aspect to the 100 objects,” MacGregor, 65, said in his British Museum office, a commodious space decorated with a careful selection of art that reflects his global taste, including a copy of an early Cycladic figure, a Jasper Johns print of the well-known Savarin Coffee can and a tapestrylike wall hanging fashioned from discarded soda cans by the African artist El Anatsui. MacGregor, an impish figure with a razor-sharp eye and an all-consuming passion for the institution he has run since 2002, explained that he and the curators felt that the ultimate object couldn’t be decided until the last minute. “It had to reflect something pretty important for the end of 2010. And we wanted to remind everybody that the museum is still collecting, and it’s our job to document societal changes now as well as in the past.”
Some bloggers suggested an iPad or a Botox needle. But the final object was a plastic, solar-powered light about the size of a coffee mug that came with a charger and cost $45. It can illuminate an entire room, enough to change the lives of a family with no electricity. “It is a transformative object, one that sets people free,” MacGregor said. “Once they have access to solar power, they have access to the Internet, then they have access to the world of knowledge.”
The idea for the 100 objects project was hatched after MacGregor had narrated some radio programs for the BBC about specific items in the museum’s collections, and they had received a surprisingly enthusiastic response.
“Nobody can now remember at what point it turned into this absurdly ambitious idea of 100 objects and trying to embrace the whole world,” he said. In the beginning, he said, the underlying mission was to find a way for visitors to make sense of the museum’s vast holdings by taking a single object and putting it into a larger context, one that told a story that everybody could relate to. “It became this fascinating balance between the chronological and the geographical and the thematic,” he said.
Soon after the radio program began – five spots a week, each about 15 minutes – MacGregor’s matter-of-fact Scottish accent became as recognizable as Philippe de Montebello’s plumy French baritone did to visitors who listened to his recorded audio guides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before his retirement in 2008.
While the project might have been seen as an extremely slick promotion for a museum, it has become a lot more. “It’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels,”’ MacGregor said. “The museum is meant to be like Gulliver.” Week by week objects were grouped under intriguing chapters: “Empire Builders,” “Inside the Palace: Secrets at Court,” “After the Ice Age: Food and Sex.”
Often the tiniest things – easily overlooked in a place as gigantic as the British Museum, a building with a Greek Revival facade that houses some eight million objects – make the loudest statements. Take, for example, an Edwardian penny defaced with the words “vote for women,” or a 2-inch-square ivory label once attached to a pair of sandals belonging to King Den, one of the earliest Egyptian pharaohs.
“The nearest modern equivalent I can think of to this label is the ID card that people working in an office now have to wear round their necks to get past the security check,” MacGregor wrote. Museum officials say there have been 24 million downloads of segments from the BBC’s website. And the book was a best-seller.
That kind of success might inspire other museums to invent variations on the “100 Objects” theme, but none can match the breadth of collections at the British Museum. And those holdings don’t include paintings, unlike other institutions with comprehensive collections like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre.
“In all other museums European pictures overrule the rest of the collection,” MacGregor said. “It means that we are the only one of these encyclopedic museums where Europe is not dominant in the narrative. That’s a huge advantage if you’re trying to make sense of the world today.”
By Carol Vogel