British Museum blog

‘Gateway’ objects – storytelling in the Money gallery


Anna Bright, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

In redeveloping the Money Gallery at the British Museum we have been thinking about ways to help visitors make sense of a collection that will span 4,000 years of world history and comprise over 1000 objects. On average a visitor to the Museum may spend several hours here, but only three or so minutes in any particular gallery. Given that one of our aims is to encourage visitors to engage with the collection, we want to give them quick and accessible ways into some of the fascinating and important stories that these objects tell.

We have planned a trail of 12 key objects that have been designed to be as eye-catching as possible. Visitors can either follow the trail, or dip into it at any point. If someone reads the text that accompanies these 12 objects they will get an overview of the major themes in the gallery. We call these key objects ‘gateway objects’ as they can work as gateways into all or part of a gallery. This interpretative approach has been developed at the Museum over the last five years and we have found that it can be an effective way to help our audiences to engage with bigger stories and themes.

Maiolica offering box, Italy, sixteenth century

Maiolica offering box, Italy, sixteenth century

Gateway objects work on the principle that people are drawn to objects rather than text. By placing important contextual information in close proximity to a key object, we increase the likelihood that visitors will read that information. Ideally a gateway object would embody the following four qualities: it should work as an intellectual gateway into a section of the display; be an important object in the collection; be intrinsically attractive and eye-catching, and it should be an iconic object visitors have heard of.

One of the challenges we face in the Money Gallery is that many of the objects are small. It’s not that they are necessarily unattractive, but it is fair to say that they are less attention grabbing than, say, an ancient Egyptian mummy. We have worked closely with designers to make sure that our 12 key objects stand out as much as possible. As the design has progressed we are all getting excited about how the new gallery will look, and are looking forward to seeing whether our gateway objects do in fact entice visitors to spend more time engaging with the fascinating and diverse collection on display.

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

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This is our next gallery space in the #MuseumOfTheFuture series. It's Room 64, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Early Egypt. Rapid advances in the technology and social organisation of Egypt during the 5th millennium BC produced a material culture of increasing sophistication. Further innovations followed in about 3100 BC when the separate Predynastic peoples of Upper and Lower Egypt were united under a single ruler. The resulting increase in wealth and strong central control led to dramatic achievements in architecture, writing and fine goods, culminating in the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza in around 2600 BC.
Objects on display in Room 64 illustrate the cultural, technological and political development of early civilisation in Egypt throughout this period. In this picture you can see Gebelein Man, a mummy who was naturally preserved in the desert sands, and who used to have the unofficial nickname of Ginger (although the Museum doesn't use this name). In the background you can see an interactive virtual autopsy of the mummy which was installed in the newly refurbished gallery last year. It's Toulouse-Lautrec's 150th birthday! Here's his poster for a Parisian cabaret 
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Mummification, magic and ritual are investigated through the objects on display in Rooms 62–63. These include coffins, mummies, funerary masks, portraits and other items designed to be buried with the deceased. Modern research methods such as x-rays and CT scans are used to examine the mummification process. It's time for our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space. This is Room 61, the Michael Cohen Gallery of Egyptian life and death (the tomb-chapel of Nebamun). The British Museum acquired 11 wall-paintings from the tomb-chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun in the 1820s. Dating from about 1350 BC, they are some of the most famous works of art from ancient Egypt.
Following a 10-year period of conservation and research, the paintings were put on display together for the first time in 2009. They give the impression of the walls of colour that would have been experienced by the ancient visitors to the tomb-chapel.
Objects dating from the same time period and a 3D animation of the tomb-chapel help to set the tomb-chapel in context and show how the finished tomb would have looked. (There is no Room 60 in the British Museum.)
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