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A History Of The World: Telling the story of London

London's 10 objects for A History of the World project.

Finbarr Whooley, Assistant Director of the Horniman Museum
By Finbarr Whooley
Chair of the London Hubs London World City Programme

Choosing 10 objects to illustrate London's history has been no easy task, writes the Horniman Museum's Finbarr Whooley.

"Museum objects have a very special relationship with our visitors, often they associate a particular display with a moment in their lives - a childhood visit for example or a blind date at the local gallery.

Occasionally they will have strong views about a change in the display or a new interpretation being placed on a treasured object.

At the Horniman I have a particular memory of being berated by a man who objected to us taking off display some 20 years previously a tapeworm to which he had been much attached during visits to the museum in the 1960s.

Choosing 10 objects for London's history of the world programme was not an easy task.

Ultimately we hope that the results will be as stimulating, diverse, strange and unpredictable as London itself.
Finbarr Whooley

Between us the four museums in the London Hub; the Museum of London, the Horniman, the London Transport Museum and the Geffrye, hold many thousands of objects that have been collected over the years in order to introduce Londoners to their own history and to their place in the world.

The final choice is an eclectic one which demonstrates just how varied the collections of the capital's museums are.

Unique perspectives

They are not necessarily our finest objects, some are already very popular with our visitors, and some are chosen because they can tell a fascinating story that is not generally very well known.

Nearly 1.5 million visitors come to see these objects in our four museums each year.

Often we receive letters or emails from visitors whose visit has triggered off memories or some display has stimulated discussion or debate; sometimes our visitors disagree with our curators descriptions of the objects on display.

The History Of The World programme allows us to capture these unique perspectives in a new and exciting way.

We hope that these initial 10 objects will whet people's appetites, stimulate interest and get people to begin to put their own treasured (or hated) objects on display.

Ultimately, we hope that the results will be as stimulating, diverse, strange and unpredictable as London itself."

London's 10 objects

Kali dancing on Shiva, AD 1027

Kali dancing on Shiva

In 1894, Frederick Horniman purchased this figure from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), a city named after the mother goddess Kali. This figure depicts a Hindu myth. Find out more here.

Deed of sale for a slave, AD80-120

Roman-era slave bill.

Originally it was coated with black wax in which the scribe wrote with a stilus, but now his writing survives only as scratches in the wood. The translated text reads: 'Vegetus, assistant slave of Montanus the slave of the August Emperor, has bought the girl Fortunata, by nationality a Diablintian (from near Jublains in France), for 600 denarii. She is warranted healthy and not liable to run away ...' Find out more here.

Lead cloth seal, 1552

Elizabethan cloth seal.

In the centre of this lead seal is the arms of the City of London (a cross and a sword). Around the edge is an inscription: "LOND[INI PRO] PANNIS LANICIS 1552", meaning 'for woollen cloths at London'. Find out more here.

Ca Mau Cargo Chinese Tea Bowl 1723-35

Ca Mau Cargo Chinese Tea Bowl 1723-35

Although tea is commonplace today, it was an expensive novelty when a London coffee house the Sultan's Head, advertised it in 1658. When Samuel Pepys drank his first cup two years later, he recorded in his diary that the clerk 'did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink), of which I had never drank before'. Find out more here.

Thames Tunnel peep show souvenir, 1843

Thames Tunnel peep show souvenir, 1843

Thames Tunnel peep show, 1843 Heralded as the Eighth Wonder of the World, Marc Brunel's pioneering tunnel under the Thames opened as a public walkway in 1843. Find out more here.

Commemorative plate, Great Exhibition, 1851

A souvenir plate from the Great Exhibition 1851.

The Great Exhibition of the works of industry of all nations was conceived by Prince Albert and Henry Cole. Their aim was to improve the manufacture and design of British goods and to cultivate public taste. Find out more here.

Underground logo with Johnston lettering


The roundel is one of the most recognised and imitated logos in the world. It first appeared on Underground station platforms in 1908. Originally known as the bar and circle, it comprised a solid red disc with a horizontal blue bar. Find out more here.

Dress designed by Mary Quant, 1960s

Mary Quant dress, 1960s.

Mary Quant opened her first shop 'Bazaar' on the King's Road in London's Chelsea in 1955. Her clothes were not cheap but their design reflected the rise of youth culture and the desire for unfussy, easy-to-wear garments. Find out more here.

Leaflet from 1908 Olympic Games, London

Leaflet from the 1908 London Olympics.

Although given just two year's notice, London successfully completed the infrastructure to host the games. The main venue was the White City Stadium, built as part of the Franco-British Exhibition. Find out more here.

Kosher distillery wine bottle labels, 1901-1965

Kosher distillery wine bottle labels, 1901-1965

These bottle labels are printed in both Hebrew and English and were used for labelling wines and spirits bottled by the kosher distillery, M. Chaikin & Co. Limited, located in the basement of the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, Brick Lane, E1. Find out more here.

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