In the running for the tag of Object 101 was this sculpture by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj — a flotilla of small craft, filled with burned matchsticks, a reminder of the global migrant crisis. (IMAGE: KINGS COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE)
In the running for the tag of Object 101 was this sculpture by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj — a flotilla of small craft, filled with burned matchsticks, a reminder of the global migrant crisis. (IMAGE: KINGS COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE)

What will define the decade gone by? Recharge by Rachel Lopez

Ten years after the phenomenal success of the radio show, podcast and book A History of the World in 100 Objects, experts try to choose an item to symbolise the 2010s. What will it be?
PUBLISHED ON JAN 29, 2021 07:18 PM IST

Some collaborations change the world. Others just help you understand it on a whole new level. In 2010, the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 joined forces to create a radio series to narrate the history of the world.

They took a somewhat unorthodox approach. No bulky timelines, no dastardly dynasties or tales from the winning side. Instead, A History of the World in 100 Objects used artefacts from the museum to represent how far we’ve come and how we did it.

So the Rosetta Stone told the tale of language, kingship and doing business in Ancient Egypt. Hokusai’s woodcut the Great Wave off Kanagawa showed not just the sea, but a Japan opening up to the West. A solar lamp, the newest of the objects, closed the show on a hopeful note — light for those who need it.

The radio show was enormously successful. Four million listeners tuned in, 10 million have downloaded it as a podcast. Meanwhile, museums around the world have drawn on the formula to popularise history and make it more relatable to the public.

Why talk about it now? Last month, Neil MacGregor, who spearheaded the project as director of the British Museum and has since retired, roped in experts from around the world for a bonus podcast. Each would nominate a new item that defined the decade gone by, and the object eventually selected would be added to the original collection as Item 101.

Much has happened since 2010, but you’ll recognise most of the nominations. The cameraphone, of course, has given life a Record and Reveal button. Zoom, which held teams and world economies together last year, was a big contender. Masks, symbols of safety and protest, are telling icons of our times.

One suggestion was for a sculpture by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj. It depicts a flotilla of small craft, made from bicycle mudguards, filled with burned matchsticks — a sobering reminder of the global migrant crisis and those who tried, and failed, to escape to safer shores. Another sculpture, Silent Messenger, was based on the simple stone piles in Arctic communities. They help navigate, signal good areas for food in the frosty landscape, and are an eloquent way to mark how climate change is changing cultures and the idea of survival.

I won’t tell you what MacGregor picked — that would be giving the game away. But I will tell you why he picked it. The object, MacGregor says, documents not just itself and its immediate connection to events, but a decade of fragility. Like any object in a museum, it helps you understand its history and your own. The message: human life has always been perilous. We didn’t get to where we are, 100 objects and all, without fighting our way there.

We are, despite our differences, the same species on the same journey, he says, “driven by fear and guided by hope”.

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