Museum delivers on promise of the gods

It was, if you like, an anti-Frieze moment. The unveiling on Thursday of the final object in the BBC and British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects project was a modest, even solemn affair. The choice was unspectacular and visually uninteresting: a small solar-powered lamp and mobile phone charger kit. Its significance does not lie in its beauty, or its newness, or its market value. It simply has the power to change lives.

A museum is not driven by the novelty imperative. It traces longer arcs of importance. The history presented by the British Museum director Neil MacGregor may have had the substantial resources of the BBC behind it, giving it a remarkable audience: more than 10m podcast downloads and 3.9m listeners to the Radio 4 programme. But it remained a serious and scholarly affair. And its 100th object brought the series to a satisfying and noble close.

The lamp itself is, in a world of iPads and driverless cars, a modest item. But it has a genuinely global reach. It brings power, light, and energy to a population mass that
has been denied those life-giving elements. It marks, as MacGregor noted, the setting free of millions of people. Just one example: the kerosene lamps used by developing societies for cooking are also one of the major causes of respiratory illness among the world’s women. No longer.

There were sexier objects in the shortlist from which the final object was chosen. The Chelsea shirt of Didier Drogba was an inspired choice as an exemplar of the interdependent, globalised society in which we live: an item of clothing manufactured in China by a German company to be worn by a West African soccer player who learnt his trade in France and came to England to play for a Russian-owned club.

A thermally insulated suit from the British Antarctic Survey has made possible the settlement of the last unpopulated part of the world. A pestle and mortar from Bangladesh told the story of migration and cultural identity through food.

But the solar lamp made – literally – a more powerful case. “The aspiration to make clean, affordable power available to the most remote communities through the natural power of the sun is a story worthy of this generation,” said MacGregor. Harnessing the sun, he reminded us, is one of the enduring subjects of ancient societies. Ra and Apollo were splendid mythological figures, but neither had the power to deliver on their promises.

Now we have that power. Like the oldest humanly made item in the series (and the museum itself), a chopping tool from east Africa’s Rift valley, the solar lamp suddenly allows people to take control of their lives in an entirely new way. It will also, through the supply of light, allow their days to be extended. How many objects can be said to double human life?

This being MacGregor, a potent metaphor lurked in the background of Thursday’s announcement. The British Museum itself was forged on the values of the Enlightenment, he said. Now the literal enlightenment of millions makes the perfect complement to that mission.

The mobile phone charger connected to the solar lamp makes its point too. Now, said MacGregor with almost brutal simplicity, “everyone has access to the knowledge of the world”.

The global conversation dreamt of by the founders of the museum is a reality. The BBC, justly maligned in the past for its reticence in tackling such culturally ambitious projects, has played its part too. Nearly half of those 10m podcast downloads, revealed MacGregor, have come from outside the UK. The world really is listening, and communicating. What better way to end this story?

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