Neil MacGregor, the BM’s director talked of moving away from history centred on the Mediterranean – once, literally, the ‘middle of the earth’ – to create a genuinely global history, beginning with an ancient chopper from the Olduvai Gorge in modern-day Tanzania, that tells us much about the ideas of early man. Some of the objects are especially beautiful: the colossal statue of Rameses II, for example; others, less so, but huge in their importance. Three rather ugly stubs of metal turn out to be remnants of the first transatlantic cable, created as one single 4,000-mile long object created in east Birmingham, transported to Bristol in a remarkable feat of logistics, and then laid along the bed of the ocean to join the Old World with the New for the first time. The series will be supported by an impressive interactive website with high resolution images and a children’s TV series, Relic: Guardians of the Museum.
What is especially encouraging about this series from a historical point of view is that it reaches wide and far. I have bemoaned before (and will do so again) about the elision of history with current affairs, a trend of which BBC television (and not radio) has been especially guilty. But this is a wholly admirable adventure, real history despite the inevitable roping in of ‘celebrities’: though a definition of celebrity capacious enough to include Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf, Wole Soyinka and Madhur Jaffrey is one I can live with.
Talking of education, in the Times today, History Today contributor Andrew Roberts provides a crash course in history books for Baroness Ashton, the EU’s new foreign affairs supremo. Any list that contains Chris Wickham’s magisterial study The Inheritance of Rome (Penguin) and A World by Itself (Heinemann), the forthcoming history of the British Isles edited by Jonathan Clark (which he discusses in the January edition of History Today) gets my thumbs up.