A History of the World in 100 Objects

In 2010, the British Museum, with the BBC, employed the idea of story-telling through objects. Some of the items they selected illustrate the migrant journeys, global trade and transnational relationships discussed here in Moving People, Changing Places (see ‘Migration Histories’).

Number 44 is a Roman mosaic depicting Christ (with some Greek Pagan elements) from a villa at Hinton St Mary in Dorset. It illustrates the mobility of religious images, ideas and practices, and the way in which they are carried by migrants and incorporated in new social, political and geographical contexts.
Mosaic of Christ from Hinton St Mary

Number 56, a Viking hoard found in the Vale of York, dates from the tenth century, and illustrates the migration of families from Scandinavia and their trading relationships with Europe, Russia and Central Asia.

Number 86, an Akan drum, was collected in Virginia, in America, in the 1700s, but its origins lie in Ghana and the transatlantic slave trade. It may have been used on board a ship to keep the slaves exercised and occupied.

Images of migration

In 2011, together with The Guardian, the Migration Museum Project ran a competition for images of migration. View the 100 Images of Migration Gallery, and see photographs of people, objects, works of art and documents that say something about migration.


Moving People Changing Places

The menorah 
A diasporic object

Menorah stained glass window

After declining numbers led the Coventry Hebrew congregation to close its synagogue,  they donated this beautiful stained glass window to the neighbouring synagogue in Solihull.

Solihull Synagogue 

Every object tells a story

Everyone has objects that are dear to them: objects which have been handed down through the family, have survived a journey, been given by a loved one or kept to commemorate an important time.  They hold meaning for their owners who tell stories about them based on their personal significance or importance to the family or community.

Some objects acquire great symbolic significance for diaspora groups. The menorah or seven-branched candelabrum is an iconic representation of the Jewish people, their religion, their experiences in exile, and the state of Israel.  In the Hebrew Bible or Torah, it appeared in the account of Moses’ time in the Sinai desert when he received divine instructions on the construction and design of a tabernacle or sanctuary and menorah. It became the focal point of Hanukkah, the festival commemorating the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple in Israel in the second century BCE. After the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE Jews in the diaspora kept the menorah as a decorative and ritual symbol of their identity and relationship with God and the land of Israel.

The suitcase
A common object associated with travel and migration is the suitcase. At a Museum of London exhibition held to commemorate the arrival of West Indian settlers on the SS Empire Windrush in 1948, a glass case displayed leather travel bags. Similar items of luggage could be seen in photographs depicting the new migrants arriving at stations and ports in the 1950s. But, as one writer noted, “while such baggage signals movement and migration, it also anticipates arrival, settlement, home” (James Procter, Dwelling Places, 2003:207). Other images from the time show Caribbean men, suitcases in hand, struggling to find accommodation at a time of housing shortages: here to stay but not always welcome.

Another suitcase was shown in a museum exhibition in Rotherham in 2007, this one constructed from the memories of a young British Pakistani woman. When asked about the suitcase, she said:


RK: Yes, Mum’s, I do believe she has still got it, I will ask her, I remember very vividly as a child this brown leather suitcase with all these labels on it, I assume they had labels at that time, they weren’t the kind you could take off, and mum saying dad had used it for several years and this is all the places he had gone to – I think she’s got it somewhere.

In this interview Ruksana recalled an old suitcase that had been carried by her father on his travels. It symbolised the journey the family had taken from the Pathan regions of Pakistan to Rotherham in South Yorkshire, but also recorded her father’s travels around East Asia, Hong Kong, the US and UK. (From Pahl and Rowsell, Artifactual Literacies, 2010).

This object is one of many that tell a story of migration linking a family now settled for several generations in the UK back to their original home.  Other items belonging to local people were also featured in the Ferham Families exhibition.

Toy wrestler
A toy figure of an American wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin. “I always like wrestling because my uncle took me to a real live wrestling match, since then I was interested.” Haris Khan, age 10.

Mrs Khan brought her own copy of the Qur’an with her when she came to England from Pakistan in 1962 and has kept it with her ever since.

© Steve Wright

Precious possessions belonging to the Khan family were on show.  What the Khans said about them can be read on Every Object Tells a Story.

Do you have a special object that tells a story about you or your family?