A History of the World in 100 Objects

I’m reviewing the book of this ambitious project from Neil McGregor and the British Museum.  Throughout 2010, in 15 minute slots on BBC Radio 4, the director of the British Museum presented objects from the museum that tell the (or, possibly, a) history of humanity.  I was aware of the project at the time, but managed to miss the radio show and never quite got round to checking out the website.

The radio shows are still on the BBC website, now in the form of a podcast.  The book has a very “podcast” feel to it.  Every object is in a short self contained chapter – just the right size for a short train journey to work.  The book is clearly meant for this sort of episodic approach to reading, taken in longer doses it could appear a bit disconnected.  There is a overarching theme to the book – one of shared humanity and tolerance – but it’s not hammered home. Above all, it is a very pleasant read – even on tough topics like slavery or colonialism, McGregor strikes an optimistic and open tone.

While there are the expected big names (the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Sutton Hoo, the Lewis Chessmen), other items are often obscure.  They come from locations around the world (though all have now ended up in London by one route or another).  There is a reasonable sense of balance of coverage between cultures and regions around the world (obviously restricted by the collection at the Museum), and the items are loosely themed to show a commonality.  Contributions from experts are interesting, and often from an unexpected angle – Grayson Perry drafted in to comment on ancient pottery, Ian Hislop on Lutheran broadsheets.

One disappointment with the book, is that the photos included don’t come close to the descriptions that McGregor gives.  He brings these objects to life in three dimensions with all their details and changes, but this is sometimes hard to appreciate without being able to look closer or from different angles.  The website does list which objects are currently on display in the museum, and where, so I do have the chance to rectify this.  And I am very much looking forward to doing so!

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Post 63: History of Rome/Revolutions Fundraiser

With the ease that the internet allows, many people who run blogs or podcasts (even very good ones) will be amateurs making the most of their spare time. However, time can be limited and running things can cost money – so podcasts will sometimes consider ways to raise funds. Some of these methods work better than others, but there’s plenty of room for inventiveness.

Some like the History of Byzantium podcast may sell occasional special episodes. Others like Hardcore History may sell large parts of their back catalogue (at a fairly decent price too, given the length – they’re worth checking out). Many like David Crowther’s History of England podcast, may just have an option for donations. Peter Adamson at the History of Philosophy gets a grant. And some like The History of Iran podcast are even funded via Kickstarter.

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Post 60: Emperors of Rome podcast

LogoAfter Mike Duncan’s superb History of Rome, do we really need another podcast about Romans?  Obviously more than a few people think so, by the way that this series, by La Trobe University in Australia has rocketed up the iTunes charts. In fairness, the show itself has a different format and tone – it’s much more biographical in focus and is presented as an interview between the host, Matt Smith, and a lecturer at the university, Dr Rhiannon Evans. Pieces of the interviews are then put together to tell the story and discuss any interesting points that crop up.

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Post 55: History of Philosophy part 2

Back in August, I wrote a post on Peter Adamson’s podcast series The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps). You can find more in depth thoughts in that post but, to be brief, I liked it a lot. It was clear, fun with an approachable structure that moved forward and built on what had gone before (both in philosophy and in the in-jokes). Adamson, a university professor, created the show in collaboration with the Leverhulme Trust and had on an array of academic guests to talk over the topics in detail.

The first section involved the greats of Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It also covered many of their predecessors (this is “without any gaps” after all) with such big names as Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras. So where do we go next? Well, in his Late Antiquity section we begin with more Greek philosophers (including more household names) before moving on to the dominance of Plato and Aristotle in neo-Platonism, and finally the early Christian church.

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Post 51: Myths and History of Ancient Greece

My last attempt to familiarize myself with Greek myths didn’t go too well. Robert Grave’s book on the topic was written in a rather affected style and contained interpretations and footnotes that could best be described as a bit mental. After a bit of a break, I recently made a new attempt with Paul Vincent’s Myths and History of Greece and Rome podcast.

It’s not a bad idea for a topic, and I can picture a series that works to tell the stories dramatically while dropping out now and then to explain them. How should we interpret these myths? How do they relate to other aspects of ancient Greek culture? How did they change over time? What impact have they had since? It would be fascinating to hear answers to these, preferably while staying well away from Robert Grave’s mushroom hallucination trip. It was disappointing then to find this series a bit ‘no thrills’.

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Post 45: The Egyptian History Podcast

This is yet another in the History of X mould – the name happens to be flipped around to Egyptian History, so I guess its already breaking that formula, but how will it stand up against its predecessors? On first glance things look good – the presenter Dominic Perry is actually a graduate student in Egyptian history. As much as I love David Crowther’s ‘man in a shed’ amateurism on History of England podcast, Egyptian history is an area with so many conspiracy theories, myths and general nonsense that it is reassuring to have someone who can give a modern academic view. It’s also great to have someone with access to and experience of materials and locations that wouldn’t be possible for the amateur podcaster.


I should say at this point that I’ve struggled with Egyptian history in the past. Even recently, I attempted to read Toby Wilkinson’s epic history of Egypt but balked halfway through in the face of incomprehensible names and a seemingly never ending succession of kings that we know little about. That’s the potential problem with such a show, the kingdoms of Egypt lasted for so long and the culture changed so much over that time – pacing things correctly can be difficult.

Previously I was barely able to get a handle on things before a new king or god or style of temple would pop up and blow everything out of the water. With this said, it is very much to Dominic Perry’s credit that he has managed to bring me along with him. The show does move quickly, but things are well placed with a special focus on new concepts as they arrive. This is balanced well, with episodes often split between a narrative and another topic (for example, women or the economy).

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Post 39: How Jamaica Conquered The World

On first sight, How Jamaica Conquered The World did not sound particularly promising. No offence to Jamaica, but I’d never had any real interest in their history. It’s to podcaster Roifield Brown’s credit then that he has managed to make such a fascinating and unique podcast that it can win over skeptics like me.

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Post 37: History of Philosophy part 1

Covering the entire history of philosophy in one go is a tough challenge. Even covering an (so far) unfinished podcast series on the history of philosophy is pretty daunting. Peter Adamson in his series History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps) makes it as easy as possible though, with an approachable and accessible style and structure. Each podcast episode is twenty to thirty minutes in length and covers a single philosopher or a single topic; generally following on in chronological fashion. The website is rather handily divided into broad eras (so far Classical, Later Antiquity and Islamic) which are then subdivided into smaller sections – this makes things easily navigable, but it is a continuous podcast and episodes do link neatly from one to the next (with the occasional interview episode). Unlike many podcasts, which are run by enthusiastic amateurs, this is run by an enthusiastic professor (based at King’s College London and LMU in Munich) with support from the Leverhulme Trust. Don’t be intimidated though, it works like the rest but perhaps with more confidence and an impression series of knowledgeable guests.

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Post 33: The start of the History of Germany Podcast

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Just a quick note here. I had previous written a post on the History of Alchemy podcast by Travis Dow and Pete Collman, two americans based in the Czech Republic who had also worked on a show on Bohemian life. I loved aspects of the show – it was relaxed, informal, and threw up great anecdotes – but at times it could be a bit piecemeal with lots of one off biographical episodes on esoteric characters. I’m therefore pleased to find out that Travis Dow is looking to start a series on the history of Germany!

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When Diplomacy Fails: The July Crisis

It may not have escaped your attention that today was the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princep, an act that set forth a chain of events that led to the First World War. It certainly didn’t escape the attention of Zack Twamley of the When Diplomacy Fails podcast, and he’s doing a special series of episodes over the next few days on the so-called ‘July Crisis’ – that series of diplomatic actions that filled the period between the assassination and the outbreak of war. I don’t personally have much insight to add, it’s not really an era that I know a lot about, but it’s very topical and there seems to be a lot of interesting discussion about it at the minute.

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