In the interconnected world of the 21st century you never know where a cultural phenomenon will spring from. But one of the most unlikely origin stories belongs to “A History of the World in 100 Objects” which resulted from a collaboration between the 262-year old British Museum and BBC Radio 4, a half-century old radio station best known for delivering news bulletins.
Their premise was a simple one: tell the story of the progress of human civilization through an examination of the objects left behind. The end product would be an exhibit in the museum and a series of 15-minute radio broadcasts on each object aired over a span of 20 weeks.
Execution was another matter. The British Museum is regarded as the world’s greatest depository of humankind, with over 8 million objects in its collection. The oldest, a stone chopping tool, traces back two million years. The whittling process to reach 100 definitive objects involved scores of curators and historians and required four years.
The project was finally ready to air on January 18, 2010 and the response was overwhelming. As the BBC Radio 4 series related the story of humanity from two million years forward, listenership swelled. The episodes would eventually attract four million listeners in England and podcast downloads would exceed 10 million, with half of those overseas out of the range of the BBC Radio 4 signal. A best-selling book was published with the objects and their stories.
There was also an interactive website where devotees could inspect each object as the series progressed to the 100th, and final, touchstone of human civilization. That would be a portable solar-powered lamp and charger which was selected as a harbinger of a day possibly not too far off when society runs on renewable energy such as the sun’s rays.
“A History of the World in 100 Objects” created a formula for stodgy museums to excite the denizens of the Internet age. Museums across the world linked online to the British Museum exhibit and created similar programs in their facilities as attendance spiked. It was inevitable that a touring exhibit would be mounted but that too would require four years of preparation.
“A History of the World in 100 Objects” reached Japan in 2015. After a run at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum the exhibition has now docked at the Kobe City Museum until mid-January 2016. For those unfamiliar with the series the curiosities may appear mundane – many are truly everyday objects. But therein lies the profundity of their story.
Take one of the Japanese objects in the exhibit. It is a clay pot hailing from the Jomon Period that thrived approximately 7,000 years ago. The clay pot represents the advancement of human diet. The Japanese artifact was one of the earliest vessels that could be used for cooking and storing food which meant more variety and nutrition on future menus.
Visitors to the Kobe City Museum will not experience all 100 objects – about half were considered too valuable or too fragile for around-the-world traveling. But that does not dilute the power of “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” The original broadcast series was broken into twenty eras comprising five objects each to tell the tale of “Making us human” and “The first cities and states” and “status symbols” and more. That time line is still represented by the objects in the traveling exhibit.
“A History of the World in 100 Objects” is at the Kobe City Museum until January 16, 2016. The museum’s website is only in Japanese although an English brochure of permanent exhibits can be downloaded.
Image by Corpse Reviver (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons