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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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery, ,

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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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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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