British Museum blog

Will the penny drop?

Gold medal of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard. England, c. 1580–1590Barrie Cook, exhibition curator, British Museum

Perhaps there should be an official warning: working in a museum can spoil your fun. Well, not really and I don’t want it put anyone off a museum career, but while a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, too much knowledge can sometimes put a damper on things.

I spent the autumn and winter of 2011 preparing the exhibition running now in Gallery 69a until 25 November 2012, Crowns and ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals, and the accompanying book. As a result, I have moved from having a vague awareness of Shakespeare’s use of coin and money references to, at least for a while, a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the subject.

So now I can’t see a Shakespeare play without a constant internal running commentary – and it’s usually: ‘Oh no! They’ve cut that out!’ But, in way, this points up why the exhibition is there in the first place. Shakespeare uses the coins and monetary units of his time constantly (native and foreign): angels and ducats, drachmas and doits, groats and crowns, dollars and pennies. He also makes metaphoric use of the ways in which coins are made, used and abused and he does this in every play he wrote. And all this was to help the audience, to give them an idea of value, to demonstrate character (Falstaff makes money-jokes constantly), to make a joke about what they had in their purses and what they all knew so well.

But, what was put there to help the audience is now more of an obstacle. Jokes based on what a three-farthings looks like are hardly going to bring the house down and will instead be utterly baffling. So it’s hardly a surprise when a performing edition trims them out on the ground that we don’t know that an angel is a coin, let alone how much it is worth; that we don’t routinely weigh our coins or check if the metal content is right. But if you come to the exhibition, you will know this and have the chance to get frustrated too.

Crowns and ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals is on display at the British Museum until 25 November 2012.

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Shakespeare: staging the world

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Hope to come visit your museum next year. :)

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  2. James Coyle says:

    Do any of your exhibtions go on to other places ?

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All prospective users of The British Museum Library had to apply in writing, stating their reasons for study there. At the time he applied for a reader's ticket, Arthur Conan Doyle was already well-known as the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, but he had not yet given up his work as a doctor, and in this letter of application he gives his occupation as 'physician'.
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