A History of the World in 100 Objects

Since having an encyclopedia on the shelves was replaced with instant access through the internet, reference books have become obsolete – almost.  One worth having on your shelf is the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, based on a BBC radio series narrated by  Neil MacGregor, Director of the museum. This ambitious undertaking is over 700 pages – full of pictures and explanations of each artefact.

Beginning with “Making us Human,” MacGregor divides civilization’s story into 20 sections, each with five pieces representing eras that range from 7000 years to under 100 years.  Sections include obscure chopping tools, pots, and writing tablets, as well as more the more famous Rosetta Stone and Hawaiian feather helmet.  An early Victorian tea set makes the list, with an explanation of the upstairs/downstairs politics behind the origins of this British custom.

Although I am still slowly making my way through this tome, I had to skip to the last pages to discover what MacGregor identified as the 2010 (date of publication) representative.  He notes…

“What single object can possibly sum up the world in 2010, embody the concerns and aspirations of humanity, speak of universal experiences and at the same time be of  practical, material importance to a great many of us in the world now?”

The solar-powered lamp and charger outbested the mobile phone, because “without electricity mobile phones are useless.” The explanation of solar energy “giving 1.6 billion people without access to an electrical grid the power they need to join the conversation…and a new level of control over their environment..{that can} transform the way in which they live” makes a good case for the future of the world’s poorest populations.

MacGregor tells a story about each item, pointing out details as though you were taking a tour with a witty docent, and his conversational style delivers the mystique of the ages, whether or not you are a student of history or anthropology.  The book is hard to put down once started, but the wealth of information is so overpowering, you must thoughtfully stop now and then to digest the historical significance and insights.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is a book worth having on your shelf to dip into regularly as a reminder of civilization’s ongoing story.