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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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

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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! Our unique new partnership with Google's Cultural Institute @googleartproject now allows you to virtually walk through the whole Museum! The British Museum is the largest space ever to be captured on indoor #StreetView, putting the unparalleled world collection at your fingertips. Come and explore!
#MuseumOfTheWorld #Google #ForEveryone

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