I’ve been very much enjoying the Radio 4/British Museum series A History of the World in 100 Objects, narrated by BM director Neil McGregor. These little gems provide a 15-minute meditation on specific objects from the museum, looking at their place in human history and what they can tell us about our ancestors.
I’m lucky enought to work near the British Museum, so this lunchtime I decided to take a look at some of the pieces featured. No doubt they’d be getting lots of visitors like me, I thought, and there’d be no trouble tracking them down.
Big mistake. I was surprised to see no posters or signposting relating to the series, and no events, talks or guided walks scheduled. So I approached the information desk, to be presented with a big fold-out map of the museum. A little key, appended at the bottom, gave the location of 30 of the 100 objects.
Instead of taking the opportunity to mount an exhibition focusing on the choices – or at least some mini-exhibitions where objects of a particular theme or historical period could be grouped together – the 100 objects remain scattered across the 95 rooms of the museum.
So I headed for the closest room listed, hoping to see the beautifully-described carved swimming reindeer, which I was hearing all about on my iPod last night. The room was closed, with no explanation on the locked door.
I navigated my way through the (well-signposted) gift shop to the next closest objects, where – disconcertingly – many of the cases were empty and the selection of exhibits seemed almost random. Eventually I found the stone chopping tool, supposedly the oldest object in the museum. I tried to rustle up a sense of wonder at this lump of flint, but sadly by this stage my sense of irritation at the museum was winning.
Nearby was another hand-axe from the collection, and some other pieces of bone and horn carved into depictions of animals. I had a quick look, but my lunch hour was quickly running out and it was time to head back to the office.
I’ll be back for another look, with more time and having studied the map in advance. But I wonder how many others, enthused by the radio series, have visited for the first and last time, disappointed and frustrated by the experience? Maybe I shouldn’t expect the whole series laid out on a plate, but I do feel this was a missed opportunity. What do you think?