Five years ago, the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 launched a 20-week radio series called “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. The series became an exhibition, making the rounds globally. It reached Japan earlier this year, exhibiting in Tokyo for a few months. In September it arrived in Kobe, and today I had the chance to go see it at the local city museum.
The idea behind this project is to map a history of the world using objects from 2 million years ago until today, from stone age tools to the credit card. Understandably, it’s a selective history, but one that aims to span all world cultures, not only the well-documented European one, and thus provide an introduction to human history.
Very few of the objects in this exhibition are famous. Many will recognize the Rosetta Stone (sadly, only a replica was used in this exhibition) and Dürer’s Rhinocerus. But that’s exactly what makes this project so unique. Even though most of the objects are not famous archaeological findings, their chronological placement and categorization tell a very interesting and compelling story. The objects are organized in categories: from the first humans through the old world, empires, faiths, trades, to the modern world.
In Japan, although the names of the objects appear also in English, the detailed explanations are in Japanese only. As I knew this would be the case, I purchased the book published by Neil McGregor, the British Museum director, about the project. I read it ahead of time and carried my Kindle Fire with me through the exhibit halls. (This provoked some stern comments from a couple of the museum staff about not taking pictures and not using “iPads”, but I stood my ground and acted rather “un-Japanese” about it, and was left alone.)
I highly recommend this exhibition, and if you don’t have a chance to see it, the book is also excellent.