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World history 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 program that the BBC will begin broadcasting on Jan. 18 in which it aims to tell a history of the world through 100 objects in the British Museum.

A joint venture four years in the making between the British Museum 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 program involving 350 museums in Britain, which will be available free over the Internet.

The presenter is Neil MacGregor, the British Museum'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 Center for Astrophysics) this series is radio at its best: inventive, clever and yet always light on its feet.

In the mid 17th century Archbishop James Ussher, an Irish prelate and scholar, totted up the lifespans of all the prophets mentioned in the Old Testament and concluded that the world had been created on the night preceding Oct. 23, 4004 B.C. MacGregor, a more modern historian, begins nearly 1.8 million years before that with the Swiss Army knife of the stone age, a hand ax found by Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in the 1930s.

Discovering how to chip stones to make a tool that would cut flesh was the moment man learned to be an opportunist. Once invented, the hand ax would hardly change over 1 million years. It became a passport to the world, and was carried from east Africa to Libya, Israel, India, Korea and even to a gravel pit near Heathrow airport where one was buried 600,000 years ago.

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 nonliterate.

"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 MacGregor discusses in an early program, 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.

The British Museum's curators spent two years choosing the objects MacGregor examines. In particular, they sought out things that would help him draw out universal themes. Periclean Athens, Confucian China and Achaemenid Iran existed at more or less the same time, between 500 and 450 B.C. By examining objects from each place, MacGregor is able to compare three different ways of constructing a highly efficient state and nimbly reassesses Athens in the context of the Persia it was fighting and the China it did not yet know.

The importance of trade is another theme. A 16th century Aztec mosaic of a double-headed serpent exemplifies the way cultures have long been connected through the movement of people and ideas. It is, he says, "a document of the tribute system of the empire," with pieces of turquoise from mines that were more than 1,000 miles apart, white teeth carved from shells found on both coasts of Mexico, and red details made out of Spondylus, a thorny oyster shell found 60 meters below the surface of the sea.

Silver pieces of eight were another passport to trade, and, as the first object of a global economy, a key step in the history of money. Minted in South America from the end of the 15th century, they crossed both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. So widely were these silver coins used that interruptions in the production of silver in Mexico and Peru had a severe knock-on effect. In Europe silver shortages led to a sudden massive expansion of the money supply and the hyperinflation of the mid 17th century. In China they helped cause the collapse of the Ming dynasty.

MacGregor also uses coins, the simplest common sign of a centralized rule, to explore the personification of power as well as the history of money and of trade. In the Middle East the head of the Byzantine emperor was stamped on coins for several centuries. But in the early 690s, for example, Umayyad dinars from Damascus suddenly switched from displaying heads of rulers to showing the shahada, the declaration of belief in the oneness of Allah. It was the first time political power, as represented by coinage, was connected to a set of unchanging universal ideas rather than a person.

Religion as a way of organizing different interests in societies is another theme. How and why, for example, did different religions acquire their own particular look? Why does God in Judaism and Islam have no face while Buddha is a cross-legged man? And when do you begin seeing the connection between the food that man ate and the gods he worshipped? When man started farming at the end of the ice age was the moment his gods began farming too. Dependent on regular seasons, man prayed for rain, and, in Honduras, started making statues of maize gods.

Freedom and the battles against slavery and totalitarianism dominate the 20th century. A Russian imperial porcelain plate showing a Leninist worker trampling on capital and taking over a factory is one starting point, as is a suffragette penny, with "Votes for Women" stamped across the head of King Edward VII. Closer to our own time, MacGregor describes a chair made from decommissioned guns collected since the Mozambique civil war ended in 1992, including AK-47s (both Russian and Czech), a Sten gun from World War II and a Belgian assault rifle. The British Museum's throne of weapons provides a neat symbol of the postcolonial moment when the Soviets and the West fought their proxy wars across the continent.

Of the 100 objects, only one has not been selected yet. 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, United Kingdom.

World history in 100 objects 01/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 3:30am]
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