British Museum blog

Small objects telling big stories


Anna Bright, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

Broadly speaking, museum interpretation is everything we do that helps visitors make sense of our collection. As the person responsible for interpretation on the refurbishment of the Money Gallery, I’m going to explain in this and later posts what my role involves on a project like this.

So what do I do? Alongside Catherine Eagleton, curator of the Money Gallery, I am working to help define the stories that will be told through the objects on display and to develop a structure for these narratives. As part of the core project team I also work with designers to ensure that the design helps communicate these stories and key messages. I will then edit the text that curators write for panels and labels.

To develop narrative structures around objects that successfully communicate with our visitors, we need to understand those visitors. This is a key aspect of interpretation work here at the British Museum – we carry out evaluation that informs and backs up everything we do. We find out things like who our visitors are, how long they spend in a gallery, and the ways they tend to move around the gallery space. All of this information helps us to plan where and how we can best communicate the key messages of our stories to our visitors.

As 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 money in one room. We are planning a narrative structure that is at the same time chronological and thematic. Each display case will contain objects that tell stories around a particular theme, typically with a number of case studies within each theme.

One of the very earliest coins, from Lydia (western modern Turkey), about 650-600 BC.

One of the very earliest coins, from Lydia (western modern Turkey), about 650-600 BC.

But that is not all. There will be over 1,000 objects in the room. Our visitors typically spend around three hours on a visit to the Museum, but on average they spend just three minutes in any one gallery. That’s three minutes to look at and read about more than 1,000 objects covering 4,000 years of history. Very challenging indeed!

Clearly it is crucial that we help visitors make sense of the gallery space and this narrative structure. To do this, we are planning a trail of key objects that visitors can follow that will tell them stories covering the key themes.

The idea is that, through the clever use of design, someone coming in to the gallery will immediately be able to spot this trail, and will realise that there are key objects throughout the gallery for them to look at. We call these ‘gateway objects’. This gateway object approach to gallery interpretation is something we have developed here at the Museum over the past few years and which I’ll write about in more detail in another post.

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

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  1. Pam Tracz says:

    the columbian museum, in Bogota Columbia which is tied to the Art Gallery of Columbia/ Botero museum and three others has a “money room” which although not as long, does cover the columbian/ spanish history of the nation. You might want to check with them if that’s possible.??…

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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.
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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.
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