A history of the world in 100 objects


Individual things, when approached in the right way, can unlock an understanding of how people live, from how they worshipped to what they ate. A History of the World in 100 Objects highlights the compelling power of objects to reveal both the differences and the many similarities between our modern world and the cultures of the past.

This exhibition, on loan from the British Museum, has already toured to the Middle East, Japan, Taiwan and Western Australia. Now Canberra hosts this travelling exhibition that covers over 200 million years in one room.

It starts from the very beginning of the human history of making things, from 200 million years ago to 2500 BCE. The oldest object from the museum is a two-million-year-old Olduvai chopping stone, one of the oldest known tools made by our earliest human ancestors. Its discovery in northern Tanzania, with fossil remains of an extinct human species, proved that both human life and technology began in Africa. A further series of delicate objects (a fibre basket from Arnhem Land, a hand-axe, ceramic pots, and a bird-shaped pestle) follows as we begin to see the development of functional aesthetics.

The objects are presented under several often overlapping themes. While objects might be located within a theme, and thus a period in time, they often transcend temporal or thematic classification.

In cross-referencing events and phenomena, the exhibition design avoids hierarchy. The layout allows you to physically travel back and forth through time and place to discover how these objects speak to a grander narrative as well as making your own connections to the histories of the objects.

The inclusion of a number of unexpected objects, which at first look out of place, is an example of how the exhibition gives the same treatment to objects throughout time. Care and attention doesn’t just apply to ancient material. The show also features a no-interest credit card from HSBC, a counterfeit football jersey and a $60 solar-powered lamp. These objects also chart a history of progress through technological change.

While the majority of these remarkable objects are enclosed in glass cabinets, there are a handful that escape these confines. Once discovered they easily become showstoppers, for example: the granite statue of Ramesses II, a marble bust of Sophocles, a seated Buddha from Gandhara made of stone, and an excellent Assyrian relief from Nivenah.

CSIRO WLAN equipment (IRN's 218324, 218325, 218327, 218328)
WLAN prototype test-bed, Metal, plastic, rubber, adhesive and ink, 1990s, designed and assembled in Australia, CSIRO WLAN collection © National Museum of Australia.

In each new iteration of the travelling exhibition the British Museum invites the host museum to introduce a 101st object to represent their country or state. The National Museum presents the CSIRO WLAN Prototype Test Bed, the precursor to modern WiFi technology which was developed in Canberra during the 1990s, as the final milestone.

A History of the World in 100 Objects breaks away from the traditional ‘treasures’ show. The encyclopaedic diversity of the 100 objects on display is a rare opportunity to transcend time and place in order to make our own connections as to how history has been written, witnessed and recounted throughout time.

A History of the World in 100 Objects
National Museum of Australia
9 September – 29 January

Preview Words by Chelsea Hopper