There are no fixed rules for writing a history of the world. Unless one is tied to some text-bound pattern of belief, each of us can open the global story pretty much where we wish: by conjuring up a tiny speck in galactic time, by evoking primal creatures of the marsh, by feeling the heft of a chipped stone spear tip. Or we may take more personalized markers such as a shaper of nations, a trader in gold, a transcriber of tales, or a singer of songs.
Neil MacGregor has chosen to give structure to his history of the world by drawing on the capacious holdings of the British Museum, of which he is the director. This position gives him what is perhaps a paramount vantage point in selecting from the astonishing range of objects gathered in that wondrous institution. Initially founded in 1753 by the generosity of the polymath and collector Sir Hans Sloane, at a high point of Britain’s collecting fever, the museum was charged by Parliament with the obligation to develop a collection that would be “aimed at universality.”
MacGregor responded to that challenge two and a half centuries later by developing a joint project between the museum and the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Four, which serves essentially as the BBC‘s cultural connector to the public at large. In this project, MacGregor and his colleagues, in consultation with the BBC, would choose one hundred objects from the museum’s enormous holdings, around which they would develop one hundred radio programs, to be broadcast during the year 2010, on a schedule of five programs a week for twenty weeks. The first object illustrated in A History of the World in 100 Objects is a beautiful wooden mummy case from Thebes, dated around 240 BC. The last is a solar-powered lamp and charger made last year in China.
During the development phase of the project, MacGregor and his staff drafted one hundred brief essays and, in consultation with the BBC, invited writers, artists, and scholars from Britain, the United States, and many other countries to respond with comments of their own on one (or occasionally more) of the one hundred programs. These comments, often quite lengthy or emotionally charged, were then edited sparingly, to keep their spontaneous flavor, and incorporated into the final versions of the broadcast transcripts of the hundred programs. Since this was a radio program, and thus presented without visuals, the originals were on special display in the British Museum; they were also photographed and made available on a comprehensive website for those who could not see the originals in London.
The book as we now have it is thus a compilation of the one hundred objects, arranged more or less chronologically (since many cannot be dated with precision), each with essay and commentary as edited for final broadcast format, with attached …