Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Maybe we are all winners writing history…

 Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London 

. . .At least according to the British Museum

Here in the United Kingdom, the BBC and the British Museum have collaborated on a project that aims to highlight the history of the world through 100 objects from the British Museum’s collections. A History of the World in 100 Objects was started three and a half years ago and the project strives to reshape the British Museum as a location to explore world history and appeal to non-traditional audiences. The project has included 100 radio lectures by the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor about each object, a website, and television programs. In addition, the BBC and the British Museum have created lesson plans that focus on a selection of objects chosen for the project and produced a 13-part series for BBC’s children’s division. 


While this project is interesting in and of itself, it has become much richer through the participation of individuals and museums across the United Kingdom. The British Museum took over two years to choose the 100 objects from their collection and the project was expanded through partnerships and networks of both the BBC and the British Museum. Regional television and radio stations teamed up with their local museums to compile their own top ten objects lists and local communities were invited to upload their own personal choices to an interactive website that took two years to develop.  On the website, you can see (and listen to radio programs about) the 100 objects from the British Museum and also view others that have been contributed. 

Over 350 Museums in the United Kingdom have contributed objects plus scores of individuals have uploaded objects from their personal collections. The website also allows viewers to look at the objects through time in a number of different ways. By pulling up the Explore section you can look through objects that have been filtered by material, color, location, etc. and see these objects sorted by the timeframe in which they were created. By moving the time scale to your right, you see only the objects that you have chosen to see through your particular sort. The radio and television programs have highlighted the deep stories that objects can tell and encourage listeners/viewers to look deeper at objects to uncover their mysteries. 

 One object, a broken rocking horse from the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, dates from a children’s music hall performance in 1883 when a stampede for free toys led to 183 children being crushed to death against the doors. As a direct result of this disaster, emergency exits in every building were designed to open outwards. This object stands as a record of this event and subsequent changes in building code, although you wouldn’t know the story just by looking at the broken rocking horse if it weren’t highlighted through this type of program. One goes through such emergency doors many times in a day without any knowledge about the specific event that caused the building codes to change. 

 A project like A History of the World in 100 Objects allows modern technology, visitor-added content, and web connectivity to explore history and objects in relevant ways and provides us with information that adds stories and depth to our everyday encounters. The collaboration has had a great result in the United Kingdom with many participating museums reporting record crowds, particularly during the February school break shortly after radio and television programs began to air. 

But there has also been criticism that stamina is needed to keep up with a daily radio program, that web access is required for full participation, and the use of only Neil MacGregor’s voice emphasizes the British Museum’s control over the project. In addition, having all 100 objects come from the British Museum disturbs some audiences as objects were frequently acquired during the era of Britain’s colonial expansion and countries of origin may have issues with the British Museum acting as authority over these objects (article). 

And yet . . . 

Never the less, the project extends beyond the 100 objects to include items submitted by other Museums and individuals. As such, this is a program that could be replicated in the United States or other countries (despite the fact that the British Museum claims otherwise) or could be re-created on a smaller scale, such as the history of a particular country or region through specific objects that Museums and individuals can add to. Even without the resources to create a new program, individuals can contribute objects to the 100 objects website and add objects from their personal or Museum collections. While it appears that only Museums in the UK can participate as partner institutions, any individual can contribute an object, as I learned from personal experience. 

Adding my object 

I decided to participate and add an object that I thought represented something in terms of world history. This turned out to be harder than I thought. Going through my things I found many objects that were important to me or to my family but it was hard to identify something that had meaning to the larger world and had historical meaning. After looking again at my belongings and at the website I chose my Magic 8 Ball because it was ubiquitous in the bedrooms of my friends in our 70’s childhoods and is still in production. 

My Magic 8 Ball has followed me to University and has been in all of my professional offices. It’s a little embarrassing how I still give it a shake when I’ve made an important decision to confirm whether or not it approves. And when I asked it if it was the right object to choose it said “As I see it, yes.” It was quite easy to register and upload an object so I recommend that readers go ahead and give it a try. At the very least it will force you to look at your personal objects in a new light. And you can log on to see my Magic 8 ball now that it's been approved by the site. 

Why not? 

Why not start a History of the World project in your community? What objects have found their way to your community from far-flung locations and what stories could your museum, and your community, tell about our world? Plus, this is a wonderful way to connect to members of your community and learn more about objects already in your geographic area. 

Getting Started 

Find out what interesting objects exist in your community and provide access to those through a website. Perhaps your local PBS station would be interested in supporting the project and create programming featuring some of the objects that are important to you. In the meantime, there is no reason not to participate in the project here in the United Kingdom. Give it a try and upload your important object to the website and be part of the history of the world!

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