To modern eyes, the little wagon in a Berlin museum looks like a model of an old horse-drawn cart. Solidly made, about as big as a baby's cot, it is in fact a handcart, to be pulled by people, not animals.
It's not in a museum because it's anything special, but because of the story it tells. It's one of millions of similar carts that German refugees dragged behind them as they trudged west in the dying days of World War II.
Between 1945 and 1950, 12 to 14 million German-speaking people fled or were forced from their homes in central and eastern Europe to live within Germany's post-war borders. About two million are believed to have died along the way.
If you know what you're looking at, the battered wagon tells many stories - about the settling of old scores, the redrawing of borders, and Germans' double role as victims and perpetrators of war.
You could call this the Neil MacGregor method of teaching history: show an object, tell its story, and in the process reveal the world in which that object was made. He did the same thing in his 2010 book A History Of The World In 100 Objects. Like that, this book is tied in with a BBC radio series and an exhibition at the British Museum, of which MacGregor is director.
It isn't exactly a history of Germany; more like an expertly guided journey through a swathe of central Europe, taking in the past 500 years or so. For most of that time there was no "Germany" - just a mass of mini-states and a lot of people with a shared language.
The objects MacGregor chooses to tell their stories include the grand and the ordinary. The Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag are there, inevitably, but so is the German sausage - 1200 varieties, by one count - and the beer that goes with them. There's a Bible signed by Martin Luther, who not only spread the gospel but in the process revolutionised the German language.
Deutschmark notes are an introduction to the post-war economic miracle. An iron cross is a symbol of Prussian toughness, but also modesty.
A Volkswagen helps explain why "Made in Germany" means quality. White crosses beside the River Spree, commemorating people who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, tell the story of a divided nation. There's an early edition of the Grimm Brothers' tales, Meissen porcelain, Bauhaus designs, and the sign from the gate of the Buchenwald concentration camp (particularly creepy because it's so beautifully designed).
The result is a wonderful book; like 100 Objects, it's chunky, richly illustrated and impeccably written, and a reminder of the magic that can happen when you combine words and pictures.
Germany: Memories Of A Nation
by Neil MacGregor
(Allen Lane $60)
Mark Fryer is the editor of the Herald's The Business.