Fun Link Friday: A History of the World in 100 Objects

Back in 2010, the British Museum put out a series of 100 short podcasts, using objects from their vast collection to highlight episodes or thematic aspects in world history.

Right: A helmet from Sutton Hoo, one of the most famous Viking finds in England. Photo my own.

Each 15-minute podcast, narrated by Neil MacGregor, director of the Museum, beautifully blends art history comments (e.g. on form, color, materials) with discussion of the object’s historical context, or broader thematic issues using the object as a jumping-off point. Many of the podcasts also feature top scholars in the field – such as Nicholas Thomas (Pacific Islands expert, U of Cambridge), talking about a feathered helmet given as a gift to Captain Cook from a Hawaiian chief.

The objects highlighted range widely, from a UAE credit card compliant with Sharia law and a contemporary Mozambique artwork (a chair or throne made from decommissioned automatic weapons), to ; from a chronometer carried on the HMS Beagle to a Ming Dynasty banknote. I think they’ve done a wonderful job of choosing objects from all around the world, and highlighting some of their most famous treasures, but also many less-famous works.

Amongst these one hundred objects selected out of the entire world’s history, I am a bit surprised to find more than one from Japan. But I am not surprised that one of them is the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai. (The other three are Kakiemon ceramic elephants, a sacred bronze mirror, and a Jômon era pot.)

The podcasts are short (15 mins) and fun, and I’ve already begun to learn so much, not only about specific cultures, but also about thematic resonances, how the global economy was born and developed, for example. How to think about objects, how they look, how they are made, and how they interact with our lives.

About Travis

I am a scholar of Japanese & Okinawan history with a particular interest in the history of arts and culture, and inter-Asia interactions, in the early modern period. I have been fortunate to enjoy the opportunity to live in Okinawa for six months in 2016-17, and in mainland Japan on multiple occasions, including from Sept 2019 to now.
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