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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Hipsters beware! Those who paid Peter the Great's beard tax got a token as proof!

Explore the history of money in our Citi Money Gallery. Every #PayDay we're sharing a #MoneyFact! Born #onthisday in 58 BC: Livia Drusilla (Julia Augusta), wife of Augustus, mother of Tiberius
#history Charlemagne died #onthisday in 814. Very few of his surviving coins carry the imperial title – this gold solidus from the port of Dorestad describes him as king of the Franks and the Lombards
#history #coins #Charlemagne 'We are all fools in love' – Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was first published #onthisday in 1813.  Here's a wood-engraved illustration by Helen Binyon from 1938
#illustration #JaneAusten #books #history English artist Samuel Palmer was born #onthisday in 1805. He made this painting late in his career, when his critical reputation was higher than it had ever been. It is a representation of late evening: quiet and meditative, even idyllic. The sun has already set, leaving a purplish glow in the sky; the moon and the evening star can be seen in the clear sky above. There is a sense of the chill of early autumn in the colours. Dark-coloured birds, probably rooks, are circling in the sky above the castle on the river, while a single white bird flies across the river.
London, about 1878.
#history #art #watercolour #painting Born #onthisday in 1832: Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This illustration from the final chapter shows Alice upsetting the twelve creatures of the jury 
#history #illustration #AliceinWonderland #books
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