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A History of the World in 100 Objects

The BBC and the British Museum reconstruct two million years of human history

By Frank Dabbs

The BBC has always expanded the boundaries of broadcasting, and A History of the World in 100 Objects is no exception. Created in partnership with the British Museum, each of the 100 14-minute radio broadcasts (downloadable as podcasts) examines one object from the museum’s collection, eventually covering two million years of human history.

What makes this series so successful and compelling is that the partners play to their strengths. The BBC flexes its story-producing muscles while the British Museum infuses each episode with its mandate “to allow all studious and curious persons . . . to construct their own history of the world and to find their place in it.” 

The writer-narrator is British Museum director Neil MacGregor, who achieved celebrity status in the museum world by transforming the venerable establishment from a deficit-ridden, self-doubting institution into a bright, creative and popular place.

The podcasts, which were launched last January and conclude this fall, begin with the Egyptian mummy of Hornedjitef, which fascinated MacGregor in boyhood visits to the museum he now directs. An eclectic collection of drawings, paintings, tools, jewellery, maps, furniture, pottery, icons, coins and carvings follows. These include prehistoric relics such as a two-million-year-old Olduvai stone-chipping tool from Tanzania. However, the archaeological record being what it is, the last 11,000 years are told most thoroughly around themes that reflect the richness and diversity of the human experience.

This cornucopia includes a mystery. The last object to be presented is a closely guarded secret (number 99 will be the credit card).

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