100-object treasure hunt at the British Museum

Roof of the Great Court in the British Museum

Roof of the Great Court in the British Museum

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?

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3 comments

  1. Hi Anna,

    Yes, the BBC series is great, isn’t it. It’s quite fun for me hearing new perspectives on objects I know from working there already. And it’s also a bit nostalgic for me – taking me back to the place I used to work and some familiar friends.

    I was in the BM last week and appreciate some of what you’ve written here from your recent experience in the gallereis. Yes, some of the objects can be quite tricky to locate. I think the thinking behind leaving all 100 objects where they are on display while the radio series is airing is to encourage visitors to penetrate into the permanent galleries and start exploring for themselves. I suppose if they were to bring each week’s five objects into one central space, they’d end up recreating the radio programmes in the museum. The idea behind the project was to get visitors to come up with their *own* history of the world using objects. But if visitors can’t even find them, then perhaps something’s not working quite right.

    I noted a couple last week wandering around with the map/booklet you mention, happily ticking off the objects as they went. Although I think to them it was more of a game to find them, rather than actually looking at the objects!

    I’m going to copy your post to a contact at the BM. Perhaps they’d like to respond as well.

    Incidentally, the swimming reindeer carving was probably off display because it opens in its own exhibition at the BM tomorrow: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/future_exhibitions/swimming_reindeer.aspx

    Do let me know if you have more luck at the BM next time.

    Steve x

  2. Thanks so much for your comments, Steve, I do see what you mean about exploring the articles in context. Perhaps it was over-optimistic to try to find more than one in a lunch hour! But I reckon better sign-posting would help too.

  3. Mary-Jane Tsang · ·

    Hi

    I agree that this series of radio programmes is wonderful and can’t wait for it to resume soon.

    I think it would be a shame for the objects to be brought together and keeping them in their original galleries will help draw visitors to them. I say that as a person who is guilty of visiting temporary exhibitions and favourite galleries time and time again, often without making the effort to explore new ones.

    However, I can very much appreciate the frustration in trying to locate these objects given the size of the place.

    I do hope the BM visitors services team take note of these comments and ensure all the highlighted objects are accessible, especially for one’s precious lunchtime!

    M-J

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