Formats Unpacked: History of the World in 100 Objects

How constraints shaped one of the BBC's favourite formats

Hi All,

Hope you’ve all had a great week.

A big hello to all you new subscribers. You’re clearly as obsessed with formats as we are. Tell me a little about who you are and what you do. It’s always good to hear from you. And thanks to all of you who shared Formats Unpacked on social media and in your newsletters. It really helps.

This week’s format was produced by my old colleagues at the BBC. I’m a huge fan of stories about objects and I’m very fortunate in that since leaving the Beeb I’ve been able to continue working with museums to produce podcasts telling stories about their incredible collections. More on that in a few weeks. For now, let me introduce you to James Caig who is doing the unpacking.

James is a writer and comms strategist who works with creative agencies and businesses to make what they do better. He provides training and facilitation as well as strategy. He's jointly responsible for the excellent long-running series of love letters to lyrics called A Longing Look, and you can read his writing about stories and culture by subscribing to his irregular newsletter, More News From Nowhere

Over to James…

What's it called?

What’s the format?

A radio programme first broadcast in 2010. Each episode lasts 15 minutes and is based around a single exhibit at the British Museum in London, selected by its director, Neil MacGregor, who also presents. Over 100 episodes and 25 hours we go from the first stone axe to the credit card, travelling across the world and 2 million years to do so. The series is structured in weekly bursts of five episodes centred on a theme and a period, such as After The Ice Age or The Beginning of Science & Literature. 

The resulting series is part TED-does-Civilisation, part British Museum content strategy, telling the story of how humans shaped the world, and in turn were shaped by it, all through the things that they have made. 

A collection of objects including an ancient roof tile, a mummy and a globe

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The constraints. 

The world is vast, its stories infinite. Yet this series sets out to represent humanity with a collection of objects that wouldn’t fill your garage, then summarise their significance in less time than it takes to cook your oven chips. The effect is beguiling - ambitious and intimate at the same time. At a macro level, you get a grand sweep through global civilisation. At a micro level, it’s compressed storytelling of the highest order. Neil MacGregor makes every moment count. It’s a curatorial high-wire act that could make your head spin. Instead it just makes you swoon. 

The first constraint is the selection process. By definition, the list of 100 objects is partial, and the unspoken purpose of every episode is to prove it deserves to exist. Great storytelling is almost always an act of persuasion, I think. Whether film, novel or presentation the audience needs to feel this matters. To understand why. The series distills that idea to its essence, and inclusion here requires a pretty high bar. What can the object tell us about human progress? Where does it sit in the nexus of art, commerce and power? Each object becomes a prism through which to view the most fundamental ideas of humanity, often simultaneously. Take the monograph of Suleyman, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire around 1500. We hear that Suleyman expanded the Empire and its size and importance forced European powers west (to the ‘new world.’) We hear too that the monograph contributed to the effective running of a growing bureaucracy, ensuring Suleyman’s authority was recognised at its further reaches. Finally we hear that the monograph shows the importance of Ottoman calligraphy and religious decoration. “In the Islamic world,” MacGregor says, “red tape can often be high art.” Glorious. 

All this in a running time (15 minutes in schedule terms, but it’s usually less) that demands MacGregor gets to meaningful fast. Like any good storyteller, he hooks us with what we already know or think: he uses our familiarity with modern technology to introduce an ornate Korean roof tile from 700 AD, when Korea “was already a rich and urbanised country, a major player at the end of the Silk Road”; he uses hymn-singing rugby fans to make the connection between religion and sport and a ceremonial stone belt commemorating the earliest known organised team game. After that, MacGregor recounts why the object was made, and how. Both are revealing. From ‘why’ you get a society’s beliefs and values. From ‘how’ you get a sense of how that society worked. The processes, the sourcing of materials, the trade routes opening up. MacGregor uses his own analysis, contemporary accounts and expert witnesses to tell his story. The minutes fly by, but it never feels rushed. 

The medium itself is the obvious constraint but one you soon forget. Museums have always told stories through things, but usually we can see the object. MacGregor has to conjure it in our minds. As lyrical as he is precise, he helps us see paintings and feel tools. He describes colours as “refulgent” and the Rosetta Stone as “a dreary bit of broken granite.” He makes us imagine the contours of a Yoruban brass head sculpture or a helmet found in Sutton Hoo or a Native American buckskin map. For these sections, MacGregor leaves the studio and responds directly to the object. You get the sense of things crafted, used, handled and preserved. You also get a sense of why he does what he does. It’s the sound of the Director walking the museum floor. 

Which brings us to one more, potentially fatal constraint. All 100 objects are exhibits at the British Museum. This risked a certain parochialism - the world viewed through a problematic lens of colonialism. Instead, the programme deliberately embraces the parallel and divergent paths of civilisations and the way ‘our’ history intersects with others’. It’s not all war and conquest, but a tactile sense of humanity evolving together. It’s what Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif in the first episode calls “a story of endless connections.” Somehow, within all the constraints, there’s room for history to breathe, and it’s a history we all share. 

Favourite episode?

The Early Victorian Tea Set. “It’s one of the extraordinary ironies of British national identity,” starts MacGregor, “or perhaps it says everything about our national identity, that the drink that’s become the worldwide caricature of Britishness has nothing indigenous about it.” The episode captures a moment in Empire in England: the industrialisation that underpinned the mass production of porcelain and pottery; the geopolitical implications of growing and importing vast quantities of tea and sugar; the transition of national identity as we moved from a country of beer drinkers (boorish, rebellious) to a genteel and demure collection of tea drinkers; and the associated propaganda that held wine and coffee to be less patriotic than tea because they were the favoured beverages of imperial rivals. It covers a lot of ground.

Similar formats:

The 2018 TV series Civilisations was an attempt to tell a similarly pluralistic update to Kenneth Clark’s canonical, traditional series of lectures. Less directly, shows A House Through Time have adopted the ‘prism’ approach, deliberately narrowing the perspective to make a rich story more accessible and more human.   

Thanks James.

If you’ve not already, please do check out James’ love letters to lyrics - A Longing Look. It’s a brilliant format!

Before I go I just want to say that at Storythings we work with lots of organisations developing formats. If you would like any help give us a shout. Also, if you’d like to unpack a format yourself do get in touch.

Until next week,


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