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

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. [...] Catherine Eagleton mentioned in her last post, one of the big challenges we face in the gallery is how to cover 4,000 years of the history of [...]

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  2. 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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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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