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A sea of stories: the British Museum

The British Museum's A History of the World in 100 Objects, one of the projects longlisted for the Art Fund museums prize, continues to make its mark

For the eighth (yes, it's something of a marathon) visit to museums whose projects have been nominated for the Art Fund museums prize, judges Jeremy Deller and I headed just down the road from my office to the British Museum, where (when we were not being evacuated by a fire alarm) we were given a very welcome and interesting reminder of A History of the World in 100 Objects.

It was a project that, I suspect, may prove a watershed in the way museums and galleries work with the public, with each other, and with (and as) broadcasters. Far more than just a BBC radio programme (and a wonderful one at that, with all episodes still available to download), it also harnessed the stories and memories of members of the public, as they were invited to upload details of their own chosen objects to the project's website. So, too, were regional and local museums, 550 of which had their own version of A History of the World, in partnership with local radio. And, even though the project ran in 2010, there are still offshoots continuing now, including A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects. (Satisfyingly, one of the objects is an early surfboard – apparently they were knocked out by Tom Tremewan, the local coffin maker at Perranporth, after the first world war.)

We had a quick whisk round the museum, too, under the benign guidance of the British Museum's head of research, JD Hill. He reminded us of some of the stories that the 100 objects told. For example, we paused at the Rosetta stone, one of the least inspiring-looking objects in the museum. But this plain-looking slab of stone has one of the museum's best stories, since the discovery that its trilingual inscription was in fact the same text thrice over meant that Egyptian hieroglyphs could be decoded for the first time. JD reminded us that, aside from hieroglyphs, demotic and Greek, the stone is also inscribed with a fourth language: English. The stone came to Britain when Napoleon was defeated in Egypt; the fact is commemorated on the broken side of the stone, on which is stencilled "Captured by the British army in 1801. Presented by King George III". So the stone also tells the story of the fight between western powers for dominance of Egypt and the Near East; and, you might say, tells us something rather powerful about the history of the museum itself.

A History of the World was a project that was at the same time rigorous, welcoming and – most importantly – quite simply full of wonderful stories to stir the imagination and pique the intellect. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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