British Museum blog

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

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

Spending all over the world…

Coins from each of the 193 countries recognised by the United Nations arranged in a spiralThomas Hockenhull and Ben Alsop, curators, British Museum

The British Museum collects and displays objects from across the world, and every year we are visited by millions of people from many different countries. In one section of the new Citi Money Gallery we had a simple plan to display at least one object from every country, and we decided that we could only achieve this within the available space by using coins.

Looking at the list of UN-recognised countries we began to search the extensive collection of the Department of Coins and Medals. Where possible we planned to exhibit coins, of the national currency, rather than a sub-denomination. The UK currency, for example, is represented by a pound coin and not a penny; the Euro by a euro coin and not a cent, and so on.

Coins from around the world arranged in a spiral

Coins from around the world arranged in a spiral

For the purposes of display, it was suggested that a spiral would be a really visually arresting design. Beginning with a two Afghani coin of Afghanistan and finishing with a Zimbabwean dollar, the coins spiral alphabetically by country from the centre to the outer edge of the display panel. There are 192 coins in total, with one space representing South Sudan, which issues banknotes but is yet to issue coins, following its independence in 2011.

A glance at the spiral provides for some interesting observations. For instance, not all member states of the United Nations have their own currencies. Some are part of monetary unions, such as the Bank of Central African States, while others, such as Micronesia, use the money of a much larger neighbour, the U.S. dollar.

The symbols and images countries choose to use on their coinage can be very different, each offering a different idea of nationhood. Individual countries may choose to depict a person, animal or symbols which are very particular to their society and history. Monetary unions on the other hand need to find a unifying factor which helps to group the various countries together using one image.

We are keen to display the most recent coins possible and welcome the donation of newer coins to help us keep the display as up to date as we can.

We also created an online version: why not see how many you recognise?

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Recording, and sharing, our money

Citi volunteers working in the Department of Coins and Medals

Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

The Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum has a collection of around a million objects – coins, paper money, tokens, credit cards, and other money-related objects, as well as medals and badges. Any objects going on display – including the more than 1,000 objects in the new Citi Money Gallery – need to have been photographed beforehand for our records. But, we’re also working to create images of as many of the objects in our collection as possible, to upload to our collection online.

Working on this database is a hugely important part of the day-to-day work of curators at the Museum, since the better the records and images available online, the more people can access and study our collection, from anywhere in the world.

Recently, we were helped in this task by some volunteers from Citi, who each gave up a day of their time to do what curators sometimes think is a rather boring task: individually photographing both sides of large numbers of objects.

Volunteers from Citi adding objects to the database

Volunteers from Citi adding objects to the database. © Citi

Yiting Shen, co-chair of the Citi London Volunteer Council, explained that voluntary work in a museum had long been an ambition:

‘Thinking that even counting the coins (over a million objects) would be fun, we managed to land a project to photograph and scan objects from the American coins and medals collection. A total of 565 objects were scanned and catalogued over the two days between two groups of six volunteers.’

We chose the American tokens for these two days, since Citi are celebrating their 200th anniversary this year, and the bank began – in 1812 – in the then newly-formed United States of America.

Some of the tokens the team photographed were from the period of the American Civil War, others were gambling tokens from modern Las Vegas, and one volunteer was particularly excited by a “chucky cheese” token.

Making a record

Making a record. © Citi

‘We learned that this is time consuming work, but all of the volunteers were very happy about having made an impact and giving the US collection international exposure. We also learned a lot about behind the scenes work at the Museum, from the basics on how to read a coin record and the meaning behind all the numbers each object has been given, to naming them consistently for automatic bulk upload. We also learned more about each other and our strengths beyond our professional banking jobs. One of our volunteers is a former archaeologist and was very active in sharing his insights. Volunteers had fun wearing the ever so fashionable finger gloves curators wear to handle the objects, and shared laughs on discovering the old and quirky coins, such as shower tokens.’

The next step was to upload the images to the collection online and make them available for all the world to see. I’ll leave the last word to Yiting:

‘For me it’s a real source of pride –to contribute to public learning of the past, present and future of money, and seeing many visitors taking photos, the finger prints on the glass cases as they try to get a closer look, and the Citi virtual card for Google Wallet on display makes me smile.’

Staff from Citi were volunteering as part of the annual Citi Global Community Day

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi .

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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery

The new Citi Money Gallery is open


Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

The new Citi Money Gallery is now open. Seeing those words in front of my eyes on the computer screen still feels a little strange! Time has flown by, and I can hardly believe that I am writing this last blog post about the redisplay project.

The objects are installed, the graphics and video are up and running, online content is live, and it’s all looking stunning. There’s an amazing moment as a curator when you see the display you’ve been working on for over a year take shape. Even more wonderful is seeing the first visitors in the gallery looking at the objects, reading the labels, and taking photos of what they see. The first reactions have been incredibly positive – and in fact one case is so popular that it’s getting covered with fingerprints already, as people look at it, and point things out to the people they’re visiting with. While this may not be such great news for the people who will now have to clean the glass daily, for me it’s a real source of pride, and a sign that people are really looking closely at the objects on display.

Senior Museum Assistant, Amanda Gregory installing objects in the new Money Gallery

Senior Museum Assistant, Amanda Gregory installing objects in the new Money Gallery

Now, then, all there is left to do is think about what I should wear to the opening event. Well, not quite. The exciting thing about the Citi Money Gallery project is that we will continue to work on the displays in the gallery after opening.

Various sections of the gallery are designed to be flexible, and allow the new stories of money to be displayed in the coming years, and I’ll be handing over to a new gallery curator soon. Working alongside him will be an education specialist who will be developing programmes and using the themes of the gallery to teach topics including financial literacy and numeracy. So, in the coming months you will occasionally hear from my new colleagues about what they are doing.

If you visit the gallery and have ideas for new technologies of money that you think we should look into adding to the gallery in the next few years, do let us know.

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

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Pinning it down: the installation of the Money Gallery


Amanda Gregory, Senior Museum Assistant, British Museum

I manage the team of four Museum Assistants in the Department of Coins and Medals, and we are responsible for all aspects of practical collections care, which includes exhibition installation, loans, gallery maintenance, documentation and supervision of the Study Room, where any interested visitor can examine objects from our collection of over one million coins, medals, banknotes, badges and tokens.

The Citi Money Gallery installation is by far the biggest project I have ever dealt with, and one of the biggest challenges has been the schedule. In any gallery refurbishment, the objects are always installed last, after all the building, decoration and case refurbishment has been completed. This is to ensure that our collection material, particularly sensitive metal, is not adversely affected by fumes given off by paints and varnishes, a process known as “off-gassing”. The opening date is fixed, so if the initial building works overrun, the period we have to install the objects is squeezed.

Some money boxes ready to be installed in the gallery

Some money boxes ready to be installed in the gallery

We begin installing the first of over a thousand objects this week, and have three weeks to complete the task. In the meantime we have been laying out all of the panels for the wall cases and pinning the objects. As we have 48 panels to pin in a small department overflowing with numismatists, horizontal surfaces are at a premium.

Underwear with a concealed pocket to store cash

Underwear with a concealed pocket to store cash

As well as familiar objects like coins, medals, banknotes and tokens, we have had to tackle more unusual items such as a Barbie cash register, a beer-can shaped money box, and perhaps the most bizarre of all, a pair of lacy ladies’ pants with a concealed pocket to store cash. My colleague Henry nobly took up the challenge of pinning this item, which inevitably made him the butt of many lame jokes. Moments of levity like this, together with the plentiful supply of home-baked cake provided by a kindly curatorial colleague, have kept our spirits up during this challenging time.

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

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Saving money: protecting the past from the future


Duygu Camurcuoglu, Money Gallery project conservator, British Museum

As project conservator for the re-display of the Money Gallery, it is my job to keep an eye on the ceramics, glass and metal objects going on show in June. While the re-display continues and the final work has started on the design of the gallery, myself and seven other conservators who are specialised in different materials (ceramics, glass, stone, organics, paper and prints), are responsible for checking through more than 1,000 objects to ensure they are in good condition to go on permanent display, so our visitors get the best out of these fascinating artefacts.

I joined the project in late January 2012 and since then I have looked at nearly 1,000 coins and objects mainly made from metal. There are 19 cases in total containing mixed materials and my responsibility is to check all the objects in these cases and direct specialist conservators to their related items.

Examining coins in the lab

Examining coins in the lab

Luckily most objects require only light cleaning or simple stabilisation work, but fragile objects needing more detailed work such as paper and prints are given more time to complete their treatments.

One of the most interesting parts of this project is to be in contact with other curatorial departments and see all money related objects from different parts of the world and from different eras. Even though the number of objects to be checked is very high, we maintain a good communication with the departments to complete the work on time while considering the requirements from specific curators. In the mean time, we give advice to the design team on the environmental conditions inside cases such as relative humidity and light levels as well as on the use of conservation grade case materials such as boards, tapes, fabrics and mounts, which must be used for the long-term display of the artefacts.

High relative humidity and light levels can cause problems on objects such as those made from metals, wood, paper and textile, while dry conditions can also be very damaging particularly on organic objects; the effects can be warping, shrinking or drying. Higher light levels can cause textile, paper and painted surfaces to fade away.

The most challenging situations take place when different materials are desired to be displayed in the same cases. For instance, an iron dagger with a velvet-covered scabbard from the collection of the Department of Asia, was assessed and we decided that the light levels should be minimum and the object should only stay on display for a year due to the vulnerability of velvet under display conditions. Relative humidity levels must be mid-range for textiles (40-55%), while iron requires the lowest levels as possible. In a situation like this, curators and conservators need to be in agreement, with support from the design team, that the display requirements for certain objects can be met.

Our work, of course, is not complete without monitoring the cases throughout the display, checking how the most susceptible objects react with changes in the case environment. Apart from the risk of very dry and damp conditions, fluctuations of relative humidity can create undesirable conditions for the objects and need to be addressed immediately.

Conservators, preventive conservation scientists and museum assistants work closely to make sure all the objects are safe and plan to deal with unexpected situations during the course of display. Small monitoring units for temperature and humidity will be placed in the cases in order to check the conditions regularly.

The conservation work on all the objects needs to be completed by the end of April, so time is tight! There will be many silver and gold coins put on display, mounted on new grey background fabric – and visitors will be able to really see their detail thanks to the way, particularly the silver coins, have been cleaned.

Most of the objects are now ready to be placed in cases and the conservation team will be on hand throughout to work with the museum assistants and curators, advising them on the safest display options while still giving visitors the best view of these objects.

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

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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Money Gallery

Catching up with progress in the Money Gallery


Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

It’s now a couple of months since the last blog post – so much has been going on that we haven’t had time to write anything about it all. Sometimes, when I talk to friends outside the museum sector, they are surprised at how long major exhibition or gallery projects seem to take, but when you’re working on one of these projects, you see the number and range of things that there are to do.

At the moment, there is hoarding up in what will become The Citi Money Gallery, and behind there, the cases have all been emptied, and the walls and ceiling have been repainted. Next, there’s work to do on cabling and other basic infrastructure, before we start to install the new displays. Before the scaffolding came down, I made sure I went up to the top, touched the ceiling, and took this picture.

The view above the hoardings

The view above the hoardings

At the same time, the final work is being done on the design of the gallery, including the layout of objects in the cases, and the text that will go with them. With so many specialist curators involved, each piece of text has to be edited, and checked, and re-checked, to make sure we have every detail right. Then, the text and images all go to our graphic designer to create the panels and labels for the new displays. As I write, we are expecting the first proofs of the panels to arrive, which means that it starts to feel like the new gallery is nearly ready to be installed.

The objects aren’t being neglected either, and the team of Museum Assistants in the Department of Coins and Medals are busy checking all the object lists, and getting all the objects ready for display. This preparation involves every object being individually checked by one of the Museum’s conservation team to make sure it’s in good enough condition to go on permanent display, as well as so they can advise on how objects are mounted. With more than 1000 to check, this is a big job.

It’s amazing sometimes what a gallery curator gets involved with – from paint colour choices to deep discussions about how to ensure consistency in our use of ancient place names, and from climbing scaffolding to talking about whether a plastic object would deteriorate if it was on display for five years. I’ll be talking more about this to the next generation of museum curators at a Museum Studies day in March, which I’m very excited about.

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

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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery

‘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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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery

The present and future of money


Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

When people think of the British Museum, images of antiquities are often part of what springs to mind. In fact, we collect and display modern and contemporary material, and the exhibition by Grayson Perry that has just opened is a great example of the ways that a contemporary artist can engage with our historic collections.

You might have read in the news a couple of weeks ago about the Google Wallet trial in New York, or about new mobile payment systems that are being developed in countries around the world. In the UK, debates about whether to phase out payments by cheque are still ongoing, but it seems clear that we’re in a period when what money is and how we use it is going to change substantially.

Reports of the death of cash have, though, probably been greatly exaggerated. The new technologies have some way to go before they can compete with the anonymous convenience of coins and notes for many people and for many transactions.

Earlier this year, I was at the Digital Money Forum, and a group of artists were asked to imagine what the future of money might look like. The winner has since developed a video that creates a fictional scenario looking at ideas of money and anonymity (warning: contains language which some may find offensive), and what could happen if all payments were digital and all could be traced.

A mobile phone

Mobile phones are increasingly used to make payments and transfers

For some people, the biggest concern isn’t anonymity, but more basic concerns about security, and I’ve had some really interesting conversations with a group of researchers who are studying money in Haiti. There, because of the risks involved in carrying cash around, the use of mobile phones to make payments is increasing, fast. People are also using digital transfers to keep their money safe while they are moving around.

As we develop the Money gallery, the challenge is not just how to display this – how to collect and put into an exhibition things that are electronic – but also how to make sure that the modern sections of the gallery can change during the lifetime of the displays.

Whatever happens, I think it’s clear that the next five years will see big changes, and we will need to create content for a permanent display that can reflect them. For more on this, have a listen to the Digital Money podcast I did a couple of months ago.

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

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Small objects telling big stories


Anna Bright, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

Broadly speaking, museum interpretation is everything we do that helps visitors make sense of our collection. As the person responsible for interpretation on the refurbishment of the Money Gallery, I’m going to explain in this and later posts what my role involves on a project like this.

So what do I do? Alongside Catherine Eagleton, curator of the Money Gallery, I am working to help define the stories that will be told through the objects on display and to develop a structure for these narratives. As part of the core project team I also work with designers to ensure that the design helps communicate these stories and key messages. I will then edit the text that curators write for panels and labels.

To develop narrative structures around objects that successfully communicate with our visitors, we need to understand those visitors. This is a key aspect of interpretation work here at the British Museum – we carry out evaluation that informs and backs up everything we do. We find out things like who our visitors are, how long they spend in a gallery, and the ways they tend to move around the gallery space. All of this information helps us to plan where and how we can best communicate the key messages of our stories to our visitors.

As Catherine Eagleton mentioned in her last post, one of the big challenges we face in the gallery is how to cover 4,000 years of the history of money in one room. We are planning a narrative structure that is at the same time chronological and thematic. Each display case will contain objects that tell stories around a particular theme, typically with a number of case studies within each theme.

One of the very earliest coins, from Lydia (western modern Turkey), about 650-600 BC.

One of the very earliest coins, from Lydia (western modern Turkey), about 650-600 BC.

But that is not all. There will be over 1,000 objects in the room. Our visitors typically spend around three hours on a visit to the Museum, but on average they spend just three minutes in any one gallery. That’s three minutes to look at and read about more than 1,000 objects covering 4,000 years of history. Very challenging indeed!

Clearly it is crucial that we help visitors make sense of the gallery space and this narrative structure. To do this, we are planning a trail of key objects that visitors can follow that will tell them stories covering the key themes.

The idea is that, through the clever use of design, someone coming in to the gallery will immediately be able to spot this trail, and will realise that there are key objects throughout the gallery for them to look at. We call these ‘gateway objects’. This gateway object approach to gallery interpretation is something we have developed here at the Museum over the past few years and which I’ll write about in more detail in another post.

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

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