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

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  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.

    Like

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This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge...’
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Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
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