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A History of the World in 100 Objects


April 7, 2015 by chuber1

The site that I am looking at for this blog post is the History of the World in 100 Objects .  This site was created by BBC Radio 4 to go along with its radio program of the same name.   The radio program was done in partnership with the British Museum and the museum’s director selected the 100 objects from the museum’s collections as well as writing and narrating the radio programs. This site is a portal through which users can explore the objects discussed in the program, look at other objects from partnering museums, download the radio programs as podcasts, comment on the objects, as well as upload their own objects.  At this time the site has been archived meaning that users can no longer upload or comment on objects.  While the project is now over it is nice to have this record of the site and the ways in which users interacted with it. This site does continue to work as a way for listeners to explore human history through the material remains left behind.

         The site is organized into four main pages including the home page.   The most of the content on the site works off the assumption that you have listened to the radio program when it aired, or have listened to the podcasts.  The homepage has links to the podcasts so that users can listen to them or download them.  The other three pages are called Explore, Programs, and Topics.

The Explore page is where most of the content of the site is.  This page functions as an access portal to the archive of digital objects created for this project.  The archive is navigable mainly via chronology, topic, culture, material, as well as by collection.  What is not initially clear on this page is that many of the objects in this archive are from other sources than British Museum.  After some investigating on the site I was able to discover that the British Museum partnered with various other museums in the UK to digitize objects that they felt helped tell the history of humanity.  Also during the course of the project listeners were urged to upload their own objects and to explain how those objects contributed to a better understanding of our material past and the stories that objects can tell.

The information available on each object varies wildly depending on whether the British Museum, another museum, or an individual uploaded the object.  The objects that make up the 100 objects that are discussed over the course of the radio program have by far the most detailed digital object pages of them all.  On my several visits to the site it seems that one of my favorite features is no longer working.  The British Museum has made 3-D scans of all the objects in the series and you used to be able to manipulate them in order to explore them.  I liked this feature as it gave people a way to explore these objects in depth and get a feel for what they are like as object in a way that is impossible in a museum.  Even though this feature is not working the video clips of each object that are included help users to have an ideal of the three dimensionality of these objects.  On the non-British museum object  pages each object has a picture, but no 3-D scan or video clip.  Objects uploaded by contributors had much less contextualization and linkage to the over all themes of the project.  The explore page and the object pages it contains are a useful way for visitors to construct their own narratives and sub narratives of human history by exploring the objects and the ways in which they can relate to each other.

The Program page provides links to digital versions of the radio broadcast that can be listened to online or downloaded as podcasts.  The programs page presents the individual programs in chronological order grouped into thematic blocks.  These thematic blocks are part of the original broadcast structure which broadcast five programs a week.  In grouping the programs this way users can have an idea of what motivated the decision to include these objects and not other ones.  One of my major issues with the programs page is that it would be nice if the links gave you option to listen to the individual programs, or the omnibus programs which combine a week’s worth of content into one broadcast.  As it stands the links only take you to individual programs.

The Topics page organizes the digital objects by topic area.  This is a nice way to navigate the archive, even if the topics are a bit UK centric.  This makes sense as the main audience for this site seems to be adults in the British Isle with a curiosity about the past, and some basic knowledge of history.  This is an excellent way to group the objects into collection and to provide a way for users to navigate the archive in a more structured format.

The About  page offers users a history of what this project was about, the institutions that were involved as well as other programs that are similar to this one that might interest listeners.  Buried in the subpages is a link to the blog.  I wish that this link featured more prominently.  While like the site this blog is no longer updating, it does provide an insight into the construction of the program and the nature of the overall project to engage listeners in thinking materially about the past.  It would have been nice to see this blog feature on the front page.

Overall this site does a good job of engage its primary audience and clear conveying how people can learn about the past through the objects that are left behind.  This site functions as an excellent way for the British Museum and other institutions to showcase their collections, and display objects to the public that can be difficult to showcase in gallery for multitudes of reasons, from conservation, to size, to materials that objects are made out of.  It also makes a strong case of why collecting institutions such as the British Museum are vital as places where we gather, interpret and work to understand our collective material past.  Two major issues that I have with the site are the fact that the 3-D objects no longer seem to work and the lack of contextualization for objects outside of the British Museum’s collection.  The first issue may be a matter of site maintenance, which probably a low priority for the British Museum as this site has been archived.  The second may have been an issue of scope.  There is a possibility that the staff for this project were so inundated by objects that they had little time to provide more contextualization of objects that were not in the programs.  Still it would have been nice to have some interpretation.  This site does achieve what it sets out to do which is to be a companion to the radio program as well as site for listeners and curators to interact in discussions around these objects.


  1. Susan Prillaman says:

    I just commented on Austin’s post that it was refreshing to see online exhibits associated with a documentary film rather than the tried and true adjunct to a museum exhibit. Working in the context of radio–a purely audio experience—casts another light on the use of online exhibition to provide multiple access points to content. Too bad that interpretation often takes a backseat to putting out as much material as possible.
    I’m wondering though where the born-digital exhibits are to be found—and here I digress. I did manage to locate a virtual museum site however. Seems you don’t need to show up to visit a museum in person any more, what with 3-D imaging and Virtual Museum Exhibit: Museum on Demand. This is not bad news and doesn’t signal the end to museums as we know them. A “National Study on the use of Museums and the Internet” conducted by the Institute of Museums and Library Services concludes that “the amount of use of the Internet is positively correlated with the number of in-person visits to museums.” Whew!

  2. acoleman34 says:

    As someone who loves collections and all they stand for i can appreciate the British Museum’s site and its focus on accessibility. As you mention some aspects of collections make them inaccessible such as conservation and preservation, size, or hoarding collections managers and curators (Believe me, they’re out there). For collections, I think digitization is clearly the way of the future. Presenting our material past to a wide audience is key to establishing relationships between said audience and the objects that speak historically, and an online platform such as the one the British Museum has created is perfect for that. I was also concerned about online exhibits and collections from an in-person visitor numbers standpoint but, after reading Susan’s comment, I think we can all give a resounding…WHEW! I’m also a little bummed about the 3-D imaging being faulty. If I remember correctly, we looked at that function (or something like it) in Kate’s material culture class and it was incredible.

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