An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

Today I’m not thinking about those plaques we see along the road that mark civil war sites or the birthplace of a president, but objects shaped by humans to make their lives better or more beautiful.

Monday marked the U.S. release of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a project of the British Museum that was years in the making, and well worth the trouble.

I first ran across this remarkable effort in a podcast produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation for BBC Radio 4. The ambitious project sought to choose 100 objects from the British Museum’s incomparable collection (of eight million objects) and use them to tell the history of the world. After four years of research, the series was broadcast in 2010, with Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, narrating.

The programs’ skillful writing and MacGregor’s charming narration make for programs that are as entertaining as they are educational. In each 14-15 minute episode, MacGregor describes an object, its historical context, its use, and how it reveals the complex interweaving of global trade, politics, and cultural development.

I downloaded all 100 episodes to iTunes and rotate them, 25 at the time, to my iPod. When I’m facing hours on the road, I can actually look forward to the time in the car, knowing that I’ll be learning as well enjoying the experience as the miles roll past.

The program was so popular that the British Museum produced a handsome print version of the series. If you know someone who might appreciate a book like that, remember that Christmas is coming: I can imagine lots of people who’d love to find a heavy rectangular package beneath the tree.

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