British Museum blog

A personal history in 190 objects: from Germany to the British Museum and back again

Paul Kobrak, series producer, Germany: memories of a nation, BBC Radio 4

To say that it was a life-changing moment would be to seriously over-egg it. But being made the second producer on a then unheard-of project in September 2009 gave my BBC career a much-needed shot in the arm. By then I’d already celebrated my 21st ‘radio’ birthday (I started working at the BBC in 1988) and I’d been making documentaries for more than 10 years. I was beginning to wonder where I could possibly go next.

Four months later A History of the World in 100 Objects began its life on Radio 4. I doubt I’ll ever work on another project that has the same impact. Not because others would not be equally good, or just as fascinating and challenging; rather that none would break new ground in the same way nor match the scope. And its popularity has been astounding, as sales of the accompanying book and the download figures for the series (37,693,121 and still counting) attest.

Since then I have worked on both follow-up partnership projects: 2012’s Shakespeare’s Restless World and this year’s Germany: memories of a nation. You could say that working on a series that brings together the British Museum and the BBC is like dancing with an elephant – but in truth it’s more like dancing with two. And with each project their complexity has increased.

Even a hundred programmes about objects all of which are in the British Museum were less of a challenge than twenty based on artefacts from around the UK, with our series on Shakespeare. Finding time to get to the objects and interact with them (in the unique way that Neil does) is no easy task. But aiming to do the same with thirty programmes and some 70 objects – all German in origin and the majority of them still in different parts of Germany – well, that’s just asking for trouble.

Paul Kobrak, being photobombed by Kathe Kollwitz in Kollwitz Platz, Prenzlauer Berg district, Berlin.

Paul Kobrak, being photobombed by Kathe Kollwitz in Kollwitz Platz, Prenzlauer Berg district, Berlin.

My job in all this is a bit of everything… and anything. It’s my responsibility to ensure that the programmes are made: so, ensuring the scripts are written (and to the right length), the interviews are done (and cut to the required succinctness), the locations and objects sufficiently represented (recording the ‘noise’ a delicate object makes is a challenge in itself, often helped by the tissue paper it may well be wrapped up in) and that the finished product hangs together, makes sense and – in the dictum of Lord Reith – informs, educates and entertains. But above all, it’s to ensure that the presenter is able to play the roles required of him, which is basically all of the above.

And, given the pressures on Neil MacGregor – running one of the largest and most comprehensive museums in the world (with some 8 million works in its permanent collection) – his time is incredibly precious. Nevertheless, we’ve made seven trips to Germany and one each to France, Czech Republic and Russia, visiting 15 different cities, interrogating objects and people along the way, and it’s been an education.

Neil MacGregor, working on the script, next to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, Suermondt Ludwig Museum, Aachen

Neil MacGregor, working on the script, next to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, Suermondt Ludwig Museum, Aachen

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

We’ve been to places and seen things that mere mortals – as I am when on holiday or away from work – would not get to see. Neil and I were left on our own with the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor (that features in programme 11); handled the unused wetsuit involved in a failed escape from East Germany to West (programme 2); picked up the vase that Goebbels personally declared as degenerate (programme 24); turned the page to Luther’s handwritten inscription in his 1541 translation of the Bible into German (programme 6); compared Dürer’s original monogram with the knock-offs that he pursued in the courts of Venice (programme 17); stood on a manhole cover in Kaliningrad, one of the few things you will find in that Russian city still marked with the original German name of Konigsberg (programme 3), and visited one of the first Synagogues to be built in Germany after World War II (programme 28).

Manhole cover, Kaliningrad, Russia, dated 1935.

Manhole cover, Kaliningrad, Russia, dated 1935.

In fact, on a personal note, it’s been more than an education; it has changed my own personal views of the country. Despite the fact that I have a German passport (a legacy of my German father, who left the country as a child over 75 years ago), I have never had a close affinity to the country that I have always viewed through the prism of 12 years of Nazi rule. In that regard, having never lived in Germany and rarely visited it, I am probably not very different from many British people. However, having spent much of the past nine months working on this series, I realised how limited my knowledge (and views) of Germany are – hat I need to broaden my own outlook and try to better understand the rich history behind it.

Radio programmes don’t change the world. They can’t. But if we can change the view of one person, then it’s a job well done. In that regard, I suppose the series is already a success. I can only hope that it doesn’t stop there.

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September 2014.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , , , , ,

Through time: the history behind your watch

detail of watchDavid Thompson, former Curator of Horology, British Museum

Do you own a watch? What does your watch look like? Is it a traditional mechanical watch made by one of the leading Swiss watch manufacturers or is it perhaps a cheap everyday item which you use just to tell the time? There is no doubt that even today, where smartphones have become a popular way of keeping time; watches are still very personal items. For many they are birthday, Christmas or anniversary presents. For others they have been specifically chosen as suitable for the owner to wear and to show to others. A person’s watch might equally have been chosen to suit a particular fashion, or in time-honoured tradition might be a retirement gift donated by work colleagues. For everyone they are an elegant combination of technology, design and decoration.

MS Gilt-brass tambour cased watch

MS Gilt-brass tambour cased watch. South Germany, around 1560

Anonymous gold and niello cased cylinder watch with digital dial and en-suite chain and key

Anonymous gold and niello cased cylinder watch with digital dial and en-suite chain and key, Geneva, Switzerland, around 1830

Louis Vautier gold and enamel cased verge watch. Blois, France, around 1630–38

Louis Vautier gold and enamel cased verge watch. Blois, France, around 1630–38

How many people, however, have any knowledge of the history behind the watch they wear? Few people probably realise that this innocent machine has a history of more than five hundred years since its first appearance at the beginning of the 16th century in South Germany. At the beginning, and for the first two centuries, watches were inaccurate timekeepers worn as items of fashion or as demonstrations of wealth. Just as today, fashions changed and watches became obsolete unless they were handed down as heirlooms from generation to generation. Then, in about 1660, the pocket in clothing came into existence and the pocket watch became an item of everyday wear. Just a little later, the introduction of the balance spring or hair spring made the watch a far more accurate and reliable machine making it an essential asset for organising the day. That is for those who could afford them, for it was not until the last years of the 19th century that cheap affordable watches became available for those with less money to spend – this thanks to the ingenious efforts in America and Switzerland which enabled watches to be machine manufactured in huge numbers at low cost.

Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro wristwatch. USA, 1915

Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro wristwatch. USA, 1915

Over the centuries, fashions changed and the technology in the watch improved making it ever more accurate and reliable. Towards the end of the 19th century, the wrist watch appeared and following the First World War, became the normal way for the watch to be worn, although to this day, there are still a few stalwarts who insist on wearing a pocket watch. In more recent times, the introduction of quartz technology has made the watch a very precise machine. Today, a radio-controlled watch has, in theory, the same accuracy as the atomic clocks used to determine the international time standard – one second in 300 million years – assuming the batteries last that long.

An interesting reference to opulent watches comes from the inventories of Queen Elizabeth I:

Item. A watch of agate made like an egg garnished with gold. Item. a little watch of crystal slightly garnished with gold with her majesty’s picture in it.
Item. a little watch of gold enamelled with sundry colours on both sides alike.

Sadly no examples of these jewelled watches are known to survive today, but there is no doubt that someone somewhere is wearing a modern watch which might have a similar description.

If you own a watch, make sure you look after it, as it will serve you well, and when you look at it bear in mind the amazing history behind it.

Ingersoll Ltd pin pallet lever watch. Ystradgynlais and London, 1952

Ingersoll Ltd pin pallet lever watch. Ystradgynlais and London, 1952

A new edition of David Thompsons’ Watches is available online from the British Museum shop at £16.99, Members’ price £15.29. The book explores the history of watches, based on the British Museum’s extensive watch collection which spans over 500 years. All the major makers of Europe and America are represented. Examples included range from 16th-century early stackfreed watches to modern 19th- and 20th-century watches made by companies such as Waterbury and Ingersoll.

Clocks and Watches (Room 38–39), The Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Gallery

Animation: How does a mechanical watch work?

Filed under: Collection, Room 38-39 Clocks and Watches Gallery, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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