The British Museum was founded on the death of Sir Hans Sloane, aristocrat, collector and shoe fetishist. Sloane left his 71,000 books, curiosities and antiquities to any government who’d perpetually maintain them for the enjoyment of all races, creeds and colours, free of charge. Fortunately, the British Government of 1753 was still prepared to invest in public education. As Lead Curator JD Hall puts it, ‘Then we had to wait 250 years for the BBC to be invented’.
From the British Museum’s 6-million strong collection of artefacts, Hall, with writer and presenter Neil MacGregor selected 100 items through which to tell ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, broadcast daily on Radio 4. Addressing an audience at the Oxford Playhouse, on the day of the final episode, Hall explained the series’ ideology.
Traditional history is based on written records, only covering the last 5,000 years of life, and excluding 2.2 million years of human culture. Objects exist in places before documentary records, bearing witness to histories suppressed or unrecorded, whether because they date from a time before writing, or because, traditionally, history is written by the winners. For JD Hall – and for me, as an obsessive fan of Listen Again – the most poignant of the 100 was the bark shield used by the people of Botany Bay, to defend themselves against Cook and his invaders.
The big difference between 100 Objects on radio and this ‘curator’s cut’ in theatre is that in theatre, we see the objects, albeit as photographs. Arguing for the radio format, Hall argues that TV history is too linear for the series’s discursive, electric approach. For Hall, a TV adaptation would have meant endless Starkey-esque establishing shots, MacGregor walking through fields, and silly reconstructions. But surely these are just the conventions of lazy broadcasting; popular series such as Who Do You Think You Are mediate all kinds of immigrant, emigrant and emotive histories without hand-waving or Henry VIII in a cheap wig. The real issue, sadly, is one of finance.
Despite my gripes, the impact of radio is undeniable. So far, A History of the World in 100 Objects has been downloaded by 10 million people, 5 million outside the UK. A further 3.5 million have been listening via radio; these astonishing figures exclude listeners on the World Service. Discursive and imaginative programming, History was the result of a four-year partnership between the British Museum and BBC Radio 4; a partnership which earned neither organisation any revenue. In these days of the Browne Review and the British cultural Apocalypse, that’s another way of saying: this will never happen again. What would the 101st object be, I wonder, if we wanted to record our present as well our past? A P45?
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.