British Museum blog

The present and future of money

Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

When people think of the British Museum, images of antiquities are often part of what springs to mind. In fact, we collect and display modern and contemporary material, and the exhibition by Grayson Perry that has just opened is a great example of the ways that a contemporary artist can engage with our historic collections.

You might have read in the news a couple of weeks ago about the Google Wallet trial in New York, or about new mobile payment systems that are being developed in countries around the world. In the UK, debates about whether to phase out payments by cheque are still ongoing, but it seems clear that we’re in a period when what money is and how we use it is going to change substantially.

Reports of the death of cash have, though, probably been greatly exaggerated. The new technologies have some way to go before they can compete with the anonymous convenience of coins and notes for many people and for many transactions.

Earlier this year, I was at the Digital Money Forum, and a group of artists were asked to imagine what the future of money might look like. The winner has since developed a video that creates a fictional scenario looking at ideas of money and anonymity (warning: contains language which some may find offensive), and what could happen if all payments were digital and all could be traced.

A mobile phone

Mobile phones are increasingly used to make payments and transfers

For some people, the biggest concern isn’t anonymity, but more basic concerns about security, and I’ve had some really interesting conversations with a group of researchers who are studying money in Haiti. There, because of the risks involved in carrying cash around, the use of mobile phones to make payments is increasing, fast. People are also using digital transfers to keep their money safe while they are moving around.

As we develop the Money gallery, the challenge is not just how to display this – how to collect and put into an exhibition things that are electronic – but also how to make sure that the modern sections of the gallery can change during the lifetime of the displays.

Whatever happens, I think it’s clear that the next five years will see big changes, and we will need to create content for a permanent display that can reflect them. For more on this, have a listen to the Digital Money podcast I did a couple of months ago.

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

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  1. Greta K. Greathouse says:

    This is fantastic news. Congratulations to the British Museum for their understanding of how mobile money is changing the lives of people for the better and wanting to document it.
    HIFIVE, a USAID project in Haiti, among its activities has managed and implemented the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative (HMMI), a partnership between USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The incentives provided by HMMI and the technical support it has provided have been instrumental in the rapid deployment of mobile money in Haiti. The future for mobile money in Haiti is looking great.


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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation Discover the remarkable relationship between the major ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece, unveiled in our monumental new exhibition #SunkenCities – announced today! 300 outstanding objects will be brought together in this blockbuster exhibition, including many Egyptian objects shown in the UK for the first time. Preserved and buried under the sea for over a thousand years, the stunning objects range from magnificent colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. They tell stories of political power and popular belief, myth and migration, gods and kings. Journey through centuries of encounters between two celebrated cultures, meeting iconic historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Hadrian and Antinous on the way.

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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation We are delighted to announce our first major exhibition on underwater archaeology! Submerged under the sea for over a thousand years, two lost cities of ancient Egypt were recently rediscovered. Their amazing discovery is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation 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


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