British Museum blog

Exploring mobile money in Sierra Leone

Mobile money advert in Sierra LeoneSophie Mew, British Museum

Every six months, one corner of the Citi Money Gallery (Room 68) is changed to help tell the evolving story of money, its many forms and its meaning in the modern world. In December 2012, the opportunity arose to help curate the redisplay of this temporary exhibition panel.

Our guiding principles for the display were that we had to focus on new technologies and the changing ways in which people use their money, from online payments, to mobile phone use, and other digital technologies. The second criterion was that the case studies we used had to come from the African continent.

My colleagues and I decided to focus on the uses of mobile money and explore the wide range of experiences of mobile money systems.

I was due to carry out fieldwork in Sierra Leone for the Money in Africa research project, so I decided to investigate the uses of mobile money in the capital city, Freetown. I was conscious of the need to explain the concept of mobile money to visitors to the gallery as clearly and concisely as possible within a limited space, while leaving room for real life case studies. When I was considering which objects to source from Sierra Leone, I also faced the challenge of how to select visually inspiring objects to explain a topic that is, essentially, a virtual one.

Before I left for Sierra Leone, I researched mobile money companies that were operating in the country and contacted Splash and Airtel members of staff for interviews. When I got there, I questioned a wide range of people, including museum curators, shopkeepers, street hawkers and taxi drivers about their experiences with mobile money.

Mobile money advert in Sierra Leone

Mobile money advert in Sierra Leone

Having seen TV adverts, billboards posted around the city or heard about it on the radio, most people I spoke to were curious about the idea of making and receiving payments via their mobile phones but there was a general sense of confusion as to what mobile money actually was or how it could be used. This led to mistrust, which was confirmed during an interview I carried out with a Splash employee, who explained that security concerns were the most frequently asked questions. People wanted to know how safe their money was, whether they could contact the company if things went wrong, what would happen if their phone was stolen and, for some individuals in business, how they could ensure the privacy of their account.

For now, mobile phone companies in Sierra Leone are busy promoting themselves around the country. They put on road shows with PA systems where they distribute leaflets and t-shirts such as the one we decided to display in the gallery. Freelancers are employed by marketing teams to encourage potential agents to join their networks. They carry out media talk shows; visiting schools and offices to explain to people the advantages of using mobile money systems in a country where the infrastructure is limited, literacy levels are low and where banks are not widely used.

Current examples of where mobile money systems can be most useful included being able to transport the equivalent of large wads of notes that no one can physically see, paying school fees and topping up electricity meters without leaving your own home. The marketing of mobile money systems is not yet considered ‘aggressive’ – rather, there is a focus on education, on explaining to people how the transactions work so that they can feel confident enough to use it themselves.

Mobile money on display

Mobile money on display

The objects and images that my colleagues and I selected for the display panel have enabled us to visually explain Sierra Leone’s mobile money systems through, for example, local SIM cards, a mobile phone, coins and banknotes. Promotional material, including a t-shirt and accompanying photographs of Freetown help illustrate the ways in which mobile money companies are trying to introduce the concept to potential customers for the first time.

In a gallery that shows the many different kinds of objects used as currency over more than 4,000 years, mobile phones, digital technology and how they are coming into use make for fascinating additions. In some ways they are the latest in a very long line of technological innovations that mark the constantly evolving story of money.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Money Gallery, ,

The Hockley Pendant: from an Essex field to the British Museum

The Hockley pendantNaomi Speakman and Lloyd de Beer,
curators, British Museum

A chance discovery in an Essex field by a four year-old boy has led to the latest addition to the British Museum’s medieval collection. Beautiful, both in its simplicity and elegance, the Hockley Pendant is a diamond-shaped reliquary dating from the beginning of the sixteenth century, and would have been worn by a wealthy individual as a discreet statement of piety.

The Hockley Pendant

The Hockley Pendant

As a result of the Treasure Act, and the reporting of finds through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, this is just one of many treasures acquired by museums across the country in the past year, so that such finds can be enjoyed by all.

The decoration on this piece reveals the dual nature of religious jewellery in the early sixteenth century, as a decoration and a holy amulet. The pendant is an excellent example of the intertwining of the secular and the religious in the Middle Ages. The front shows a sombre Saint Helena supporting the cross, while the back shows the Five Wounds of Christ, from his hands, feet and heart. Around the rim are inscribed the names of the Three Magi (or Wise Men): Casper, Melchior and Balthazar.

The pendant on its side, showing the inscription of the name Balthazar.

The pendant on its side, showing the inscription of the name Balthazar.

At just over three centimetres high, the pendant displays a stunning level of evocative detail. The cross shows flecked grains of wood and the Five Wounds of Christ weep blood shaped like tears, which rain down the pendant.

Originally the pendant would have looked slightly different, with the flowers, wounds and names of the Magi all filled with painted enamel. This interplay between gold and enamel was a particularly dramatic feature of late medieval metalwork, and gives us an indication of the high level of skill involved in creating such an intricate piece of jewellery.

The interior of the pendant is now empty, but it would once have held a relic, possibly of the True Cross, which was said to have been brought by St Helena to Constantinople from the Holy Land, and was thought to be the cross on which Christ was crucified.

This object allows us to better understand the enduring physical relationship between the living and the dead in the Middle Ages and the amazing depth and vibrancy of the material culture from this fascinating period in history.

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

The Hockley Pendant is now on display in Room 40: Medieval Europe

The acquisition of the Hockley Pendant was made possible through the generosity of the British Museum Friends and the Art Fund

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Portable Antiquities and Treasure

Forgery, Suffragettes and Nirvana: tracking visitors in the Citi Money Gallery

Tracking visitor paths through the gallery

Benjamin Alsop, curator, British Museum

When a gallery is radically transformed how do you judge if it’s a success? Obviously you hope that visitor numbers increase, but numbers alone do not cast much light on the individual experiences of those walking around the gallery. You hope people stay longer, read more and become so interested they go away wanting to learn more. You also can’t help but wonder which cases and objects are the most popular.

In the case of the new Citi Money Gallery are people attracted for instance by an example of the world’s first coin? A beautiful hoard of Roman gold? A Hungarian banknote with the value of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 pengo? Or simply some white frilly pants?

To help the Museum answer such questions, and to inform future projects, we evaluate all new galleries and refreshed displays. Using both visitor tracking and questionnaires we get a better understanding of not only what people may think of the new display but just as importantly how they navigate their way around it. Over the summer we welcomed into the Department of Coins and Medals Lujia Hui and Yoomin Ko, both postgraduate students from Leicester University’s Museum Studies course.

Lujia Hui tracking visitors in the Money Gallery.

Lujia Hui tracking visitors in the Money Gallery.

During the subsequent eight weeks they began the process of evaluation by tirelessly tracking visitors as they entered the Money gallery, marking which cases they looked at and for how long.

Tracking visitor paths through the gallery.

Tracking visitor paths through the gallery.

It is fascinating to see how people interact with the space and what route they take as they wend their way through 6,000 years of monetary history. Tracked visitors were asked to complete a questionnaire on leaving the gallery to give us a deeper understanding of their experiences.

It was a particularly interesting time to be conducting a gallery evaluation as with the arrival of both the Olympic and Paralympic games into London, the results do suggest a truly global audience. Over 25 different nationalities were recorded, speaking 19 different languages, and with ages ranging from 12 to 70.

The Forgery case in the Money Gallery.

The forgery case in the Money Gallery.

Preliminary results indicate the most popular cases are those entitled Forgery and Money and Society. Forgery contains two great swirls of coins and addresses counterfeiting, a practice which has accompanied the legitimate production of coinage since its very beginnings. Visitors appear to enjoy comparing the pound coins they have in their pockets to the fake ones on display, and have been so intrigued that the case has to be cleaned daily to remove all the fingerprints!

Suffragette-defaced penny. Crown copyright

Suffragette-defaced penny. Crown copyright

The case about Money and Society from the nineteenth century until today, includes a penny, defaced by suffragettes, which starred in the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ BBC Radio 4 series. Also on display are examples of money in popular culture, such as the iconic cover of the Nirvana album Nevermind, which shows a baby swimming towards a US dollar note attached to a fishing line.

The new gallery is quite different to those around it, certainly in terms of colour scheme and in-case design. Each case has a raspberry-coloured highlight panel to grab the attention of the visitor and provide a clear starting point, and a big part of the evaluation was trying to discern whether these are effective. From what we can tell, the new design is very much a success: visitors are spending longer in the space, reading more and focussing on the highlight objects in particular.

Yoomin and Lujia, after collating all the results and pulling together data from both the tracking and questionnaires, produced a final report which will form a large part of their final submission for their course. The department is incredibly grateful for all their hard work.

The evaluation of the gallery doesn’t stop here though, we are already organising for further evaluations next year so watch this space.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Money Gallery,

Introducing our new, fully-operational, beta collection search

‘Town and Country’ dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46Matthew Cock, Head of web, British Museum

'Town and Country' dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46

‘Town and Country’ dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46

In a recent post, I wrote about the launch of our new collection search beta. Well, we’ve now gone a bit further, and released an overhaul of the ‘advanced search’ functionality.

At heart, it works the same as before – users begin their search by selecting the ‘controlled terms’ that are used by our curators and cataloguers when creating the records, and retrieve all objects in the database that have been tagged with that term, or set of terms in combination. So, for example, you can find groups of objects for any combinations of terms – all the prints made in Japan between AD 1800 and 1835 perhaps, or all objects from London, Exeter and Glasgow made of bronze and so on.

Most of the lists of terms are also structured in hierarchies – for example, Paris is under France – so a search for objects from France retrieves all objects tagged with France, and any objects tagged with one of the many place names that are nested under France. In addition, we allow people to filter on the different ‘associations’ after they have made a search, for example, they can choose whether or not to include objects based on whether they are made by, attributed to, a depiction of, an artist.

In the current collection search interface (launched 2007), the user had to follow quite a process to build up their search terms and get to a page of results, and the interface wasn’t very intuitive. Only a small proportion of people used the advanced search, and most people we talked to said it wasn’t obvious how to use it.

There are two main changes that we have made to improve it. Firstly, we are using “auto-complete” – so that as you write the first few letters of your search term, a set of possible complete terms is shown based on the terms that we have in the database, along with some description so you can be sure it is the term you intended (for example, dates to help distinguish several artists with the same surname).

Secondly, we have kept the search criteria and the results showing on the same page. The user doesn’t have to travel back and forth between different pages to update their search.

We’re very aware that we have been looking at this for quite a while, and it is about time it was let loose and tested in the wild. We are really interested in any comments or questions that you have on how it works – whether you are a regular user, or using it for the first time. We hope to release this as the main interface to the collection database in the Spring.

Please add a comment below, or email us at web@britishmuseum.org and include COL Beta in the subject line.

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection

Virtual autopsy: discover how the ancient Egyptian Gebelein Man died

Scan of Gebelein Man shown on an autopsy tableDaniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology,
British Museum

In recent months the naturally-preserved mummy known as Gebelein Man (on display in Room 64, the Early Egypt gallery at the British Museum) has been revealing some of his long-held secrets.

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

He was buried in about 3500 BC (if not earlier) at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. Direct contact with the hot, dry sand naturally mummified his body, making him one of the best-preserved individuals from ancient Egypt. He has been in the British Museum collection for over 100 years and in 2012 he was taken out of the Museum for the first time to be CT scanned.

On the morning of 1 September this year, Gebelein Man was carefully packed and taken to the Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London. The detailed images and 3D models created from the high resolution X-rays taken there have allowed us to look inside his body and learn more about his life and his death in ways never before possible. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a well-preserved Predynastic mummy has ever been CT scanned.

Not only have we been able to discover that Gebelein Man was young when he died (18-21 years) but, unexpectedly, we have also learned that he died because he was stabbed in the back. The analysis of ancient human remains rarely reveals the cause of death but the cut on his back, as well as the damage to the underlying shoulder blade and rib, are characteristic of a single, fatal, penetrating wound.

With the help of the Interactive Institute, a virtual autopsy table (a new state-of-the-art interactive exhibit based on medical visualisation technology) is on show in Room 64 for a limited time (16 November to 16 December 2012) and will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves, using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture-based interface. Information points at relevant locations guide visitors to the more significant discoveries we have made.

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Come and explore Gebelein Man for yourself using the autopsy table and perhaps you will spot something we’ve missed.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
Tweet using #murder3500BC and @britishmuseum
If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , , ,

Pigment and power dressing in Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman EgyptElisabeth R. O’Connell, curator, British Museum

‘That’s one weird looking bird,’ grinned an American student on one of my tours of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department study collection for university students last year.

And to Egyptology students he is. And to students of Classical Archaeology too. But that’s rather the point. Roman Egypt (30 BC-AD 642) witnessed some of the most interesting, innovative and transformative combinations of traditions in the ancient world.

The god sits casually on his throne, one sandal-clad foot forward, his knees apart and draped in a garment. From the waist down, he could be any of a number of senior Olympian deities, or Roman emperors masquerading as such. He wears a feathered mail armour shirt that ends just above his elbows. His arms, now broken off, would have held symbols of power, perhaps an orb and sceptre. His cloak, pushed back over his shoulders, is fastened with a circular broach. From the waist up, his costume belongs to military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire. The head, however, places us firmly in an Egyptian context.

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

It’s Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in ancient Egyptian tradition. His head is that of a falcon, rendered in naturalistic style with the bird’s distinctive facial markings articulated by the carving and also traces of paint. His eyes, however, are strangely human; instead of being placed on the sides of the head, like any ‘real’ bird, they are frontal, and his incised pupils tilt his gaze upward. In an imaginative turn, the feathers of the falcon’s neck blend into the scales of the mail shirt. In the top of his head is a hole, into which a (probably metal) crown once fit.

Big Bird, as I think of him, has been off public display since 1996 when the gallery he was formerly displayed in was reconfigured to create the Great Court. Since I arrived at the Museum in 2007, he’s been the culmination of my tours for university students, giving us the opportunity to explore cultural identity through different kinds of objects from Roman Egypt. We look at magical papyri written in Egyptian and Greek, with some of the Egyptian words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written in Greek script. Why the glosses of Egyptian words in Greek script? Because in magical spells it was very important to say the words correctly or else the spell wouldn’t work. And Greek script, unlike Egyptian, represented the vowels ensuring that the words said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in Egyptian scripts was on the wane. We also look at mummy portraits belonging firmly in the Roman tradition of individualised commemorative portraiture, but made for the specific purpose of placing over the face of a mummy, a feature that belongs unmistakably to Egyptian funerary practice. We see the same combination of traditions in this limestone sculpture of Horus and other contemporary depictions.

The opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last year when the Gayer-Anderson cat was scheduled to travel to Paris, then Shetland, for exhibition. Big Bird would get his very own case at the top of a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily identifiable as ‘Egyptian’ in the British Museum Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

While preparing the display, we also had a chance to identify some of the pigments that are apparent to the naked eye: his yellow arms, black pupils and ‘eye-liner,’ garments in two different shades of green, and his red and black throne. Using an innovative imaging technique, we were also able to detect the pigment used for his armour, and it turned out to be one of the most valued pigments of the ancient world, Egyptian blue.

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

Although no longer apparent to the naked eye, it shows up in visible-induced luminescence imaging by British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer. In addition to the strange (to us) combination of Graeco-Roman-Egyptian elements, he would also have been rather garishly painted.

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

Horus – I should really stop thinking of him as Big Bird – will not go back into the study collection when the Gayer-Anderson cat returns, but instead join a touring exhibition on the Roman Empire which will give visitors to the exhibition in locations including Bristol, Norwich and Coventry, that is, in former Roman Britain, an opportunity to see a selection of objects from Antinoupolis and other cities from the former empire’s southern frontier, Roman Egypt.

For their collaboration and enthusiasm, I thank Joanne Dyer, Tracey Sweek, Michelle Hercules, Antony Simpson, Susan Holmes, Paul Goodhead, Robert Frith, Evan York, Emily Taylor and Kathleen Scott from the American Research Center in Egypt.

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Research, , , , , ,

The British Museum acquires medals awarded to Captain Scott

Royal Geographical Society medal, awarded to Captain Scott in 1904
Philip Attwood, Keeper, Coins and Medals

The British Museum has a world-famous collection of around 70,000 medals, but it’s not often that we have the chance to get up close to a national icon. Just 100 years after Captain Scott of the Antarctic died during his ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic, the Museum has acquired a group of medals awarded to this internationally celebrated explorer both during his lifetime and posthumously. Together they form a glittering record of an extraordinary man.

Gold Royal Geographical Society medal, awarded to Scott in 1904

Gold Royal Geographical Society medal, awarded to Scott in 1904

The 24 medals always remained within the Scott family, passing from Scott’s widow, the sculptor Kathleen Scott, to the couple’s son, the well-known ornithologist and conservationist Sir Peter Scott. Following the death of Peter Scott in 1989, his widow Philippa Scott – also an active conservationist and an accomplished photographer – placed the medals on long-term loan in the British Museum, and, following the death of Lady Scott in 2010, they were allocated to the British Museum under the government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme. This arrangement has now been made permanent, and the medals now form part of our permanent collection. Descriptions and images of them all will soon be available on the British Museum’s website.

The medals include the gold Royal Geographical Society medal, awarded to Scott in 1904 as soon as news arrived in England of his first Antarctic expedition’s safe return to New Zealand. There is also a gold example of the special Scott medal commissioned by the Society from the sculptor Gilbert Bayes (illustrated here). This bears Scott’s portrait on one side, and on the other an Antarctic scene complete with penguins. This medal was presented to Scott at a ceremony held in the Albert Hall on 7 November 1904.

Also within the group are Scott’s Commander of the Royal Victorian Order neck badge, as well as Royal Victorian Order, Polar Medal and Legion d’Honneur miniatures.

Silver medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp, awarded in 1906

Silver medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp, awarded in 1906

Other awards come from geographical and other societies in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France, Belgium, Austria, Italy and the United States, and reflect Scott’s international status as an explorer. The silver medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp, awarded in 1906 (also illustrated here), has globes on both sides and quotes from the Psalms: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof’. Other medals were awarded following Scott’s death during his Antarctic expedition of 1910-13 as testimony to his achievements and his bravery.

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, , , , ,

A correspondence with the history of Egyptology

A gallery display at the Roman Baths Museum, Bath

Patricia Usick, Honorary Archivist, Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

The archive of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan has recently acquired a fascinating collection of letters from Joseph Bonomi (1796-1878) to his friend and colleague Samuel Sharpe (1799-1881). Both men were important figures in early Egyptology with close connections to the British Museum; their friendship and interests are reflected in this lively, scholarly, and intimate correspondence of 1857-1878.

Bonomi’s contribution to Egyptology and his long and productive career have not been sufficiently appreciated.

A horse-drawn van advertising Joseph Bonomi’s ‘Panorama of Egypt’ exhibited in London in 1849

A horse-drawn van advertising Joseph Bonomi’s ‘Panorama of Egypt’ exhibited in London in 1849

Bonomi, artist and sculptor, Egyptologist curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum, and Sharpe, Egyptologist and biblical scholar, first met in 1837 when Sharpe was publishing inscriptions from the British Museum. They developed a close friendship while collaborating on the Egyptian Rooms at the Crystal Palace, and numerous biblical and Egyptian publications, including the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, which the architect and collector John Soane had purchased when the British Museum Trustees, alas, refused it.

Bonomi had joined Robert Hay’s expedition to Egypt as his artist in 1824, producing drawings and helping to make the plaster casts of Egyptian reliefs which are now in the British Museum along with Hay’s collections. Bonomi subsequently spent nine years in Egypt in the company of many of the eminent scholar-travellers of the day. In England, Bonomi illustrated John Gardner Wilkinson’s books on Egypt, made drawings for a Panorama of Egypt, and worked in the British Museum arranging exhibits. He designed the first hieroglyphic font produced in England for Samuel Birch, Keeper of Oriental Antiquities in the British Museum, and even designed an Egyptian temple façade for a flax mill in Leeds. Birch thought that, after Gardner Wilkinson, Bonomi knew more about Egypt than anyone of his time.

One of the Bonomi letters

One of the Bonomi letters

The letters touch on many of the Egyptological issues of the day: damage to Egyptian monuments, both natural and the deliberate ancient effacement of the name and image of the god Amun; the embalming of animals; their joint publication of the Soane sarcophagus – and how well their publications were selling; the statue of Khaemwaset (now EA 947), which Sharpe purchased and presented to the British Museum; Schliemann’s discovery of Troy; the provenance of a disputed basalt stone in Bologna and a fragment of a sarcophagus with the Asiatic Society; excavations at the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III in Thebes; the mathematical papyrus ‘in Birch’s room’ (The Rhind Papyrus P. BM 10058); the discovery of the famous Moabite Stone, the oldest Semitic inscription then known; and the Museum’s paintings from the tomb of Nebamun.

Bonomi considered Rev. Lieder’s collection ‘inferior much to Mr. Hay’s’, though worth a visit, and Birch had bought ‘20 pounds worth’. Rev. Rudolph Theophilus Lieder was a German missionary and collector who worked in Cairo for many years under the Church Missionary Society and collected Egyptian antiquities. In 1861 Lord Amherst purchased his collection of 186 items for £200, the inventory of which is in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan archives. A glimpse of what must be Rev Lieder’s son in 1869 is revealing; ‘I found Mr Lieder with eyes denoting neglected ophthalmia hand trembling from much tobacco and perhaps excess in wine. I knew him a little boy in Cairo as I then thought much neglected by his mother’.

Despite tragedy in Bonomi’s private life – his four young children died of whooping cough in one week in 1852 and he was left to bring up his four following children when his wife Jessie, the daughter of the painter John Martin, died in 1859 aged 34 – his output was enormous, and his humorous observations and cheerful disposition bring a seminal figure to life.

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

Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection,

Searching the British Museum collection

Badges in the British Museum collection


Matthew Cock, Head of web, British Museum

When the British Museum first opened in 1759, free admission was granted to all ‘studious and curious persons’. In 2007 we took that idea a step further with the launch of our collection online. A gradual process has seen this facility grow since then from about 300,000 objects available to over two million.

Badges in the British Museum collection

Badges in the British Museum collection

We know from looking at visitor statistics that many thousands of people use the collection online, accounting for about a third of our web traffic – around 15.5 million page views a year. As well as building on this amazing resource by releasing a semantic web endpoint and creating online research catalogues that tap into it, we’re working to improve and update the search itself to make it easier to use.

Through surveys and talking to regular users inside and outside the Museum – and of course, using it ourselves – we are very aware that the current search could be improved. So a team of staff from the web, programming and collection documentation teams, together with Museum curators, have been working on improvements to the interface.

This process has coincided with a re-design of the whole website that incorporates several strands – wider pages, larger images and bigger text for example. We’re currently half way through the process of updating the collection search, and have made available a Beta release to give you the opportunity to try it out alongside the old version, and let us know what you think.

You can let us know whether you approve of the changes (or not!) and if there are any bugs in what we have done. We’d like your feedback so we can make adjustments to improve it before we finalise it.

But, it’s important to note that the release at this stage only shows about half of the overall work we’re undertaking. So far we’ve updated the search results page, with larger thumbnails and a revised design; the object record page, with a revised design and – again – larger images, and we’ve added an image gallery for when an object has more than one image.

These pages are currently only available from a straightforward keyword (“free text”) search, and there are no sorting options for the results at the moment. Work is currently ongoing to develop the interface on the “advanced search” facility and to add the sorting options that users can currently apply to their results.

We’d like your feedback as comments to this post, so that you can see what others have commented already – and we can feed back if useful on comments and questions for the whole user community to see.

The beta release of the new Collection online is available here: britishmuseum.org/system_pages/beta_collection_introduction.aspx

The current version that it will replace is available here: britishmuseum.org/collection

If you’d like to email any comments, you can send them to web@britishmuseum.org with COL BETA in your subject line.

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Research

Looking again…

The Expulsion from Paradise, Giulio Benso, 1610-1670


Sarah Longair, education manager, British Museum

We spend much of our time here at the Museum analysing, researching and contextualising objects and finding ways to communicate effectively with our visitors. So when the chance to bring a fresh perspective on our collection comes along, it’s always a great moment: challenging us and our visitors to think again.

Late in July, the result of an exciting collaboration between the British Museum and a group of Year 12 students from Camden School for Girls went on show in Room 90 in the display: ‘Isolation: from text to image’.

The project originated late last year, when Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and our Schools and Young Audiences team decided to invite students to curate a display of works from the collection. We particularly wanted to encourage an innovative yet relevant approach to looking at the collection so we approached English literature students and asked them to use texts they are studying as inspiration. The literary sources, which included Hamlet, the Great Gatsby, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, John Osborne’s Look back in Anger and Keats’s poetry, would definitely give varied and intriguing possibilities through which to look at the collection.

The Expulsion from Paradise, Giulio Benso, 1610-1670.

The Expulsion from Paradise, Giulio Benso, 1610-1670.

From those who applied, an enthusiastic, inquisitive and thoughtful group of 12 students was selected to participate as an extra-curricular activity. We were very impressed by their commitment during two very busy school terms. I went to the school to deliver seminar-style sessions at the end of the school day and the group came to the Museum several times. During the Museum sessions, we discussed different approaches to drawing inspiration from images, the varied ways in which their texts related to images, how to measure and evaluate audience behaviour and practiced writing a succinct but engaging display label.

In one of the early discussion sessions, students selected ‘isolation’ as a theme which bound their texts together. From a long-list created by curators, the students selected prints and drawings to look at in the Museum’s print room.

One of the students explained how access to the original print, after seeing reproductions, was a powerful experience:

“Seeing these images gradually unfurled from their protective cloths, amid the hush of the Prints and Drawings room, is not one I will forget in a very long time.”

Left with the freedom to write creatively, they experimented in a variety of styles: in prose and poetry; as a participant in the image; from the perspective of the artist; as a character from their set text. From these various experiments, they created a final label for their selected print.

Together they decided how to arrange the works – an exercise in diplomacy for all concerned – and joined in with hanging them. One of them described their overall experience:

“The result is an exhibition that is incredibly varied. You will find a drawing by the seventeenth century Italian artist Giulio Benso beside modern artists such as Isidoro Ocampo and George Bellows. Linking such images to set texts has proved fascinating – even with prints and drawings that appeared to have concrete interior storylines, it was possible to illustrate our individual responses to our chosen texts, whether through creative or analytical writing.

If our accompanying texts make you look again at the image we have been describing, we’ve done our job. The result is an exhibition that is not only the culmination of an incredible learning process, but also one of which we are all genuinely proud.”

We were extremely impressed by the students’ thoughtful interpretations which really do make you look again at the image. We’d like to thank them for their commitment to this unique project and we hope that visitors will also be excited by this fresh perspective on the collection from these young writers.

Isolation: from text to image is on display in Room 90 until 3 September 2012

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

@britishmuseum

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,413 other followers