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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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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