The Story of Humanity Told Through ‘100 Objects’

November 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In "A History of the World in 100 Objects," British Museum director Neil MacGregor recounts the history of civilization, told through 100 treasures from the museum. Jeffrey Brown and MacGregor discuss his book.

JEFFREY BROWN: A two-million-year-old stone chopping tool from Tanzania, a double-headed serpent from around the 16th century in Mexico, a credit card issued in the United Arab Emirates in 2009 — just three of the objects that, according to a new book, help us understand our past and who we are today.

The book is “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” all of which are taken from the British Museum, which has been collecting objects for more than 250 years.

The author is Neil MacGregor, director of the museum. And he joins me now.

And welcome to you.

NEIL MACGREGOR, “A History of the World in 100 Objects”: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we go to museums like yours, right, and we look at things, stuff. But the contention here that you can pick a hundred of these things and somehow draw a history of the world?

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NEIL MACGREGOR: Yes, quite a brave contention.

What we were trying to do was argue that, actually, when you go to a museum, the big thing to do is really focus on a single object, choose one and get into it. And if you take one object and go into it in-depth, then you learn a lot about the people that made it, why they made it, the world it was for, and what it is to be a person needing objects and making objects. You learn a lot about us almost in the object.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in this case, you put a bunch of objects, 100 objects, together.

NEIL MACGREGOR: Yes. We chose 100 that go from the very beginning of human history, of making things.

So the first things we make are about two million years ago. And we start there. And we wanted to keep going round the world at different moments in history, up until today, sort of see what have we made and why have we made it? That’s the interesting thing, why we made these things anywhere in the world and what do they tell us about us?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell me about that first one, that earliest one, right?

NEIL MACGREGOR: This is just about the oldest thing that anybody like us made, made about nearly two million years ago in Tanzania in East Africa.

And it looks just like a (INAUDIBLE) but then at the top ridge there has been chipped away very carefully to give a sharp edge. And these are the tools. This is the Swiss army knife of the Stone Age.


NEIL MACGREGOR: And it’s this kind of tool that lets us all leave Africa and live everywhere, because this lets you strip the meat off the animals to get more protein, break the bones to get the marrow. Then you can use it to take the branches off the trees, skin the hides. This is what lets us…



JEFFREY BROWN: As you say in the beginning, it allows people to eat better, to grow better, to develop a better brain, everything, right?

NEIL MACGREGOR: Everything. Everything comes from that.

And we, having made this thing, we now depend on it. And for most of human history, this is the most important technology. This is the technological discovery of humanity.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, you describe that one as a first one. But how do you pick the objects? I mean, there have been — was it fun? Were there a lot of arguments about…

NEIL MACGREGOR: There were huge arguments.


NEIL MACGREGOR: It was the greatest fun ever, because the idea was we would spin the world and say what’s going on around in 2,000 years ago, 1,000 years ago?

JEFFREY BROWN: Spin the world and take walks through your own museum.

NEIL MACGREGOR: Walks through the museum and walks through time.

And what is going in China, what is going on in Mexico, in Egypt? And the thing then lets you go on this walk into another world. They open the poetry of another existence that we can only know the things, because obviously nobody wrote what they were doing with this. So we have got to take the things, imagine it and recover it.

JEFFREY BROWN: One interesting aspect that comes through as I have looked through here, you often cite the impact of an object in its own era, but then through time, in different eras.

A famous example, of course, is the Rosetta stone, one of your most famous objects. It had its own time, but then through Napoleonic era and up to our own.

NEIL MACGREGOR: That’s the great joy of objects, that they’re made for one purpose and then over time they do something completely unexpected.

The Rosetta stone is actually a tax break between the king and the church. The Greek king says that he will give the priests a tax break if they pray for him. Fine. And this is announced on the stone tablet, and dozens of copies all through Egypt. And that all ends, all breaks down, ruins, whatever.

And in the 17 — late 1790s, when the French have invaded Egypt, they start digging up to fortify themselves at Rosetta. They come across the stone. And then the British arrive to stop the French taking Egypt.


JEFFREY BROWN: So we get into a different sort of history, right of European power and colonialism, right?

NEIL MACGREGOR: The beginning of European colonialism in Egypt. And then this object, which has the Greek and the Egyptian on it, is studied by the whole of Europe.

And it’s that object that now tells us how we can read ancient Egypt. But nobody making the stone ever thought, to start with, that they were going to provide the code for hieroglyphics, never crossed their mind. And that is what is wonderful about objects. They mean different things as time goes on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, another interesting aspect of this is many things simply don’t survive, right? So we don’t know about some of the missing pieces of history.


That’s the — and obviously, we only have bits and pieces of the story. And the main things that don’t survive, of course, are textiles or things made of wood in wet climates.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. I notice when you get to a piece of clothing, you say something about it. We’re halfway through, we’re about a million years into human history. This is the first piece of cloth.

NEIL MACGREGOR: That survives.


NEIL MACGREGOR: Paper doesn’t survive very often. So it’s very patchy. But that’s another part of the game, because it means you have to imagine what didn’t survive and remember what didn’t survive.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about — I want to go to the last object of the book.


JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a solar-powered lamp. Now, you write here that it was hard to decide what should be the last thing, right? Because now you’re up to our own era.

NEIL MACGREGOR: We wanted to choose an object that would tell us about the world today and this extraordinary global world we live in, where we’re all in constant contact with each other.

We thought we would go back to the beginning of the story, the way somebody in East Africa was using an object to change their life. And this is now changing the life of millions of people in the tropics. It’s a solar panel which powers both a lamp and a mobile phone recharger.

And with this lamp, anybody working in a hut, living in a hut, away from main electricity, for the first time has light at night. This means they can read, they can study. It also means they don’t need to have kerosene lamps. So it’s better for health. With the mobile phone charger, they can sell their produce better in the local markets.

This is evening up the great divide between the city and the country among the poorest people on the planet. And the technology is of course American. The microtechnology was invented in the U.S. It’s fabricated in China and sold in Africa. And it’s another tool that’s going to let us change the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the story continues.

NEIL MACGREGOR: The story continues.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally, this was — this book was based on, I gather it was an enormously popular BBC radio program, right? Now, the book was a bestseller in Britain. Now it’s out here.

What do you think it is that grabs people so much about looking at things like this?

NEIL MACGREGOR: I think that the point is that a single object lets you explore a world that you want to know about. We all want to know a bit about what it is like to see the world from Sudan or from Korea or from Mexico.

And it’s difficult to read long books on that. A thing lets you journey immediately into another world. And it’s a thing made by somebody like you with hands like yours, a mind like yours. And you’re on a journey of poetic imagination to a place that you could never reach otherwise.


We’re going to continue this conversation online. We will go through the entire history of the world, but for now…


JEFFREY BROWN: … Neil MacGregor is the director of the British Museum. And his new book is “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”

Thanks so much.