British Museum blog

Ancient and modern: 4,000 years of the history of money in one room

Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

One of the big challenges I mentioned in the last post is that this new display will cover a long timeframe, and talk about the story of money from its beginnings to the present day. Making a selection from the million or so objects in the collections of the Department of Coins and Medals requires some careful thinking – what should we include, and, of course, what are going to have to leave out.

This leads to some slightly odd conversations: which stories are we best able to tell? Byzantium, or the English Civil War? The Silk Road, or Indian Ocean trade? Thankfully, we haven’t had to pit the armies of Rome and Persia against each other, as we have sections featuring both of those ancient empires in the gallery. Once we have a clearer idea about the storylines for the displays, and the times and places that will be featured, we can work on which objects to include.

Weighed metal was used to make payments in ancient Egypt. El-Amarna hoard, Egypt 18th Dynasty, 14th century BC.

Weighed metal was used to make payments in ancient Egypt. El-Amarna hoard, Egypt 18th Dynasty, 14th century BC.

To help with this, we have spent the last few weeks doing test layouts of sections of the new displays. My desk has masking tape all over it showing the approximate size of the areas inside the cases, and the designers have started thinking about what the graphics and the labels might look like. Starting with the sections relating to the ancient world, we have been laying out objects on my desk, moving them around, and refining the selection until we are happy with how it’s looking.

A ‘wave and pay’ mobile device

A ‘wave and pay’ mobile device

At the same time as working on the ancient world sections of the displays, I’m thinking about the contemporary world, and the future. Economics and economies are dominating the news at the moment and so my thoughts have been turning to how we can try to explain these kinds of big money stories through objects.

At the other end of the scale, some distance from trillion-dollar government debt, I’m also thinking about the ways I might in the future buy my newspaper or a cup of coffee, and trying to work out how the new displays can reflect the future of money. Will mobile phone payments replace cash? Will the use of cash end up being only for criminals and money launderers?

The story we’re aiming to tell is 4,000 years old and looking back over that amount of time gives a long view on how and why people use money, and the significance it has in their lives.

So, all of our hard work on the object selection and the drafting of the storylines of the gallery will be worth it if the new displays give our visitors a sense of this long history of money, and encourage them to see money in the present day slightly differently.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Marcelo says:

    I think the world government would need to learn how our ancestors spent money. They could take some lessons learned to apply nowadays.


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You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!

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