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.

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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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Glazed brick panel showing a roaring lion from the Throne Room of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 BC. From Babylon, southern Iraq. On loan from Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.
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