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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

A History of the World in 100 objects

People's Choice:
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British Museum and BBC


Audio | Visual | Podcast


A History of the World in 100 objects podcast pageA History of the World in 100 Objects was a 100-part radio series narrated by Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 between January and October 2010. Starting with one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands – a chopping tool from Olduvai Gorge in Africa – each 15 minute programme took an object from the collection of the British Museum as a catalyst for exploration of the history of the people who made, owned or used it.

Radio is, superficially, an unusual choice for a series which focuses on something as tangible as museum objects. However, the BBC and British Museum partnership saw this more as an opportunity. By removing the visual, the programmes could give greater prominence to each object’s story. The medium of radio offers both depth and focus and enables each object to be used as prism through which to explore past worlds – and more could be conveyed on radio in 15 minutes than would ever have been possible on TV. The objects were described as far as it was necessary to tell that story, and conjure the object, and its significance into the listener’s mind.

‘A handaxe like this was the Swiss Army knife of the Stone Age - an essential piece of technology with multiple uses. The pointed end could of course be used as a drill, while the long blades on either side would cut trees or meat or scrape bark or skins. You can imagine using this to butcher an elephant, to cut the hide and remove the meat.’

From A History of the World in 100 objects, episode 3 - Olduvai handaxe

The programmes also features around 200 contributors including archaeologists, historians, religious leaders, politicians, artists, writers, and cultural commentators who give a different insight into the object.

The use of the website that supported the broadcast series ( to add the visual dimension gave listeners a chance to see and study each object without detracting attention from the audio narrative that was being woven around them. Zoomable images and video of the objects in the round are provided where relevant. Annotations explaining details of each object are revealed as the user zooms in closer to certain elements.  Transcripts of the radio programmes are also available on the site for deaf and hard of hearing people.

A History of the World in 100 objects object page The website also allowed listeners to control their consumption of the 25 hours of radio broadcast over 10 months. Site visitors were able to subscribe, download or listen off the page to any of the broadcasts after their live transmission. The BBC’s usual 7-day limit on access to programmes online was waived, and the entire series is also available from iTunes. The podcast has had over 18 million downloads worldwide in 2010. Initial evaluation suggests that 24% of the UK population (i.e. 14.8 million people) listened to at least one episode, whether on air, online or via the podcast.

Images from top: A History of the World in 100 objects podcast page and an Example of an object page on the website supporting the broadcast series.