British Museum blog

Collecting the Olympics

Commemorative medal of the 1908 London Olympics

Thomas Hockenhull, curator, British Museum

After seven years of anticipation, the Olympics have finally descended upon London. Apart from holding a private desire to see Jason Kenny triumphantly ride away with another cycling gold medal, I am also hoping that the proximity of the games to the British Museum will enable me to establish a unique collection of Olympic related ephemera. These objects can take the form of used tickets, volunteer passes (providing they are not required to be returned to the games organisers), badges, travel cards, vouchers and other related material that will provide a numismatic record of the Olympics as they happened.

Commemorative medal of the 1908 London Olympics.

Commemorative medal of the 1908 London Olympics.

To put this aim into context, the Modern Money collection at the British Museum comprises over 160,000 objects from about 1700 to the present. It includes coins, banknotes, cheques, credit cards, tokens, tickets, artworks and a variety of ephemera relating to the modern history of transaction. We also collect medals and badges. The collection is constantly expanding and, at the very modern end we aim to acquire at least one example of every type of object that contributes to the numismatic and financial record of the world as we know it. However, the breadth of available objects dictates that I sometimes have to prioritise what I acquire.

To help me decide what to collect I often try to imagine two hypothetical scenarios. Firstly, I consider what, in all the landfill and detritus which will contribute toward a numismatic history of the 21st Century, is least likely to survive unless it is properly housed and cared for in a museum? Secondly, I think about what themes a curator of the future, perhaps centuries hence, might wish to explore in an exhibition, and what objects will assist them to tell their story.

Applying these criteria to the London Olympics, it occurs to me that there is a huge body of evidence beyond the medals the athletes will take home, that provide a snapshot of London in 2012. Indeed, in a world that is becoming increasingly digitised, the 2012 Olympics potentially provide a last opportunity for us to collect numismatic objects like paper admission tickets and travel cards to the games. Rather like assembling a time capsule for the future, collecting these objects will ensure that there is a body of material available for future research and display.

If you think you might have an object, or groups of objects, which fit into the above categories and which you would be prepared to donate to the Department of Coins and Medals, please email:

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. law2gap says:

    A very useful and instructive insight into museum preservation philosophy, thank you. Although I had to look up the word “numismatic”. I am aiming to use this word in a sentence at some point later today.


  2. This would be such a fun collection! I personally love the Games,


  3. Kwame Boateng Mensah says:

    Fascinating!!! I have never seen anything so beautiful as the medal for the 1902 games.i will surely pay a visit to the British Museum when I visit London.


  4. Julie Fry says:

    My 15 year old son and all his friends became totally obsessed by the Olympics.
    Your collection of numismatic items from the GB 2012 games would be a fantastic exhibition for
    them all to visit when they are in their 70s.


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