I really enjoyed History when I was at school, but only the more recent stuff. I took European History from 1870 to the present day and by that mark I would have covered just 100 years by the time I sat the exam in 1979. In reality I concentrated on about the first 50 years of that. My favourite topics were Bismarck, the Franco-Prussian War and the Russian Revolution up to the death of Lenin.
I have never really been interested in older history such as the Greeks and Romans and those that came before them. I just couldn’t relate to it and I found the thought of it quite boring. I always knew people that liked that era in history, and there are many books and films about those earlier periods but the history books I read for that era seemed to be about a bunch of objects and where they were found and little more information than that. Nothing to spark my interest. My modern history was all about great ideas like communism and events that changed europe and there were people alive at the time of my exam that remembered some of it. It felt real.
I eventually found myself living in London and studying at Thames Polytechnic in Woolwich. On a couple of occasions I went to the British Museum and found only one thing of interest. I couldn’t give you a name but it was the body of a man that had been preserved in the sand. I can’t say I liked it, but I found it intriging, but didn’t think much about it. As for the many other exhibits, they were just lots of little stones and bits and pieces that were of no interest to me whatsoever. Now that has just changed for me.
I am writing this in a hotel room in Esbjerg in Denmark where I am working for an Oil & Gas company. I have been listening to Podcasts and I came across one of a BBC radio series called A History of the world in a 100 objects. I listened to the story about the last object and found it interesting so downloaded the first 2 or 3 and have become quite hooked on the series. The radio series is presented by Neil MacGregor who is the Director of the British Museum, and every one of these fascinating objects is in the collection of the British Museum.
Each broadcast in the series is just 15 minutes long. They were broadcast in 2010 and wikipedia says it was a huge success with up to 4 million listeners to the radio shows and some 10 million listening to the podcast. The series is acompanied by a BBC website and all of it makes for a fantastic resource.
Neil introduces the 100th object thus:
It’s a portable solar energy panel that powers a lamp. In fact it’s sunshine, captured, harvested and stored, to be taken out and used whenever and wherever we need it.
This introduction is delivered like honey dripping sweetly from his mouth and I wanted more. He then goes on to explain more about this object bringing in other people to provide both context and expertise about the object. This is a recent exhibit from the British Museum and appeals to my liking of modern history. I then decided to download and potentially listen to the first three episodes. These were all what I would have called old boring objects.
- Mummy of Hornedjitef
- Stone (basalt) chopping tool
- Hand axe
Neil MacGregor and guests do an excellent job of bringing these three objects to life and whether he intended it or not, it has left me thinking about people and society and how our species has changed over the years and how we are all connected. So far I am up to episode 17 and already I want to go back and listen to some again. Far from being boring objects, they each have a story and a place in history that makes them and their world interesting and significant.
I am certain that it won’t be long before I take another visit to the British Museum, nearly 30 years after my last one. This time I think I am going to have a new found interest in at least 100 of the “boring” objects that are there. The radio series is an excellent example of what can be done when someone spends their time putting together a good story and not just tell us the dimensions and where it was found. There is a book to acompany the series but I haven’t read a copy of it and probably won’t because the series and website are supposed to available forever.