British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: ivory relief of Louis XIV

Ivory relief of Louis XIV
Aileen Dawson, British Museum

The art of ivory carving was practised in Europe above all in the town of Dieppe from the seventeenth century, often using elephant ivory from Africa. The shape of this delicately carved relief on a black velvet support conforms to a tusk. The artist responsible, whose signature ‘LE MARCHAND FECIT’ (‘Le Marchand made [it]’) appears on the lower part, was born in Dieppe and was the son of a painter. A Protestant, he left France to escape religious persecution and was in Edinburgh by 1696. Around 1700 he went to London where he carved portraits of many famous men, including Sir Isaac Newton and where a thriving French Protestant community settled around Shoreditch and Spitalfields.

Ivory relief of Louis XIV

Ivory relief of Louis XIV

The relief, measuring 14cm in height, depicts King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), often known as the ‘Sun King’, and celebrates his military exploits. He stands on a pedestal inscribed in Latin ‘To the Victory of Louis the Great’ with chained slaves at his feet and a series of flags to either side of him. The figures are framed by a laurel wreath. During his long reign Louis XIV fought many battles, vastly increasing the power and prestige of France and centralising its government. The magnificent château at Versailles was his creation and served the double purpose of demonstrating his wealth and taming the aristocracy, which was obliged to reside there.

David Le Marchand (1674-1726) is one of many artists who have sought refuge in Britain for reasons of religious persecution. It is not quite clear why he went to Edinburgh, and it seems surprising that he made this representation of the king whose religious policy led to his exile. One theory, which cannot be proved, is that the piece may have been done for a Scottish patron living in exile at Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris at the Stuart court of the ‘Old Pretender’, James Francis Edward, or his father, James II, under the protection of the Catholic King Louis XIV. There is no doubt that Le Marchand had several Scottish clients, nor that his most successful years were spent working in London where he met and portrayed the leading figures of the age: Samuel Pepys, Sir Christopher Wren, and various members of the burgeoning Huguenot (French Protestant) community in London.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 8 November 2012.

The carving was purchased for the Museum in 2009 with the help of the Art Fund and the British Museum Friends and is on display in Room 46: Europe 1400-1800

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London, a world city in 20 objects: the Taíno sculpture

 Taino sculptureRebecca Allen, British Museum

This is a Taíno sculpture, probably dating from the fifteenth century. The Taíno were one of the pre-European, native peoples of the Caribbean, and this figure is from Jamaica. The sculpture stands at just over a metre tall, and is made of a very dense tropical hardwood called Guayacan, which has been polished with pebbles to give the surface a deep shine.

It depicts a male spirit-being in a drug-induced trance, and may have been used in religious rituals. In Taino culture this figure embodied the life force, or cemi, which takes many forms and which could do powerful things. The figure is beautifully carved; the sculptor has seen the form of the figure within the wood and carved through to it, meaning that the spirit is found within the wood itself.

 Taino sculpture

Taino sculpture

On the figure’s back a prominent spine has been carved, showing each individual vertebra very clearly, while on the face of the figure tear channels are shown. These are made more conspicuous by the use of gilding. The figure is in suspended animation, frozen in time, as tears stream down his face.

This object featured in the British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, supported by BP. At first glance it may seem an odd choice for an exhibition which focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean London, but it has very strong visual and imaginative links with one Shakespeare play in particular: The Tempest.

In the play, a group of sailors are frozen in time by Prospero, a shaman-like figure with magical powers. Prospero commands Ariel, a spirit of the island who owes his freedom to Prospero, to tell him how the enchanted prisoners are faring. Ariel describes the enchantment and tells how one man in particular – Gonzalo – has been trapped in time while tears flow down his cheeks:

Him that you termed, sir, the good old lord Gonzalo:
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds.
(The Tempest 5.1.17-19)

This description is evocative of the kind of magical transformation represented by this sculpture. The enchantment Ariel describes is matched in the face of this figure.

Another thematic link with The Tempest lies at the point where Ariel is freed by Prospero from being trapped in an enchanted tree: ‘it was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out’ (1.2.340-2). This is reminiscent of the Taíno understanding that to carve wood is to free the form within it. Ariel, the spirit, has been freed from his imprisonment in the pine.

There are surprising and poetic links between the way Shakespeare imagined the nature of enchantment, and the understandings and insights of the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 1 November 2012.

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London, a world city in 20 objects: The Colossus of Dali

Colossus of DaliThomas Kiely, British Museum

Colossus of Dali

Upper part of a colossal limestone statue of a bearded man

This colossal limestone statue of a worshipper – identified by the elaborate wreath of leaves and berries around his head – was found in the ruins of a sanctuary near the village of Dali in central Cyprus in 1869. His missing left arm once held a laurel branch, another sign that he is taking part in a religious ritual, perhaps in honour of a god of the countryside. The costume, facial features and beard combine early classical Greek and Persian styles in an eclectic manner very typical of Cypriot artists who drew widely from their neighbours to create a unique Cypriot look.

The size of the figure and the high quality of the carving suggest this is an image of a king or priest. During the first millennium BC Cypriots erected thousands of large-scale images of themselves in sanctuaries to ensure their prayers to the gods continued for eternity. Cypriot sanctuaries were typically open air enclosures with few grand buildings such as temples. The sanctuary at Dali honoured a male god, depicted as a lion killer who protects humans from the wild forces of nature. He was later associated with the Greek Apollo and Phoenician Reshef who had similar attributes. This ‘Master of the Animals’ also acted as the patron god of the ancient city of Idalion where his sanctuary was once located.

The statue was discovered along with hundreds of others by Robert Hamilton Lang, then manager of the Imperial Ottoman Bank on Cyprus. Lang’s career is a typical example of nineteenth-century social mobility, from a relatively humble background in Scotland to being one of the most respected bankers and financial administrators in both the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. Lang’s interests in archaeology on Cyprus were encouraged by a Cypriot antiquarian, Demetrios Pierides, who introduced many foreign travellers and amateur archaeologists to the heritage of the island. Pierides lived in London for a time in his youth and, on return to his homeland, became a leading figure in Cypriot economic and intellectual life, helping to establish the Cyprus Museum in 1882.

The British Museum has benefited enormously from the generosity of more recent Cypriot entrepreneurs with close links to United Kingdom. The A.G. Leventis Foundation has supported the work of the museum for many years in displaying and studying what is recognised as one of the most important collections of Cypriot antiquities outside of the island. If the A.G. Leventis Gallery of Ancient Cyprus had provided a mirror to the extraordinary culture of the island in antiquity, then it also bears witness to the vibrancy and dynamism of the modern Cypriot diaspora in the United Kingdom.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 25 October 2012.

The Colossus of Dali is on display in Room 72: Ancient Cyprus

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Maori cloak from Aotearoa

Maori cloak from AotearoaPolly Bence, British Museum

Maori cloak from Aotearoa

Maori cloak from Aotearoa

This feather cloak is made from woven New Zealand flax fibre (Phormium tenax). It is decorated with dyed fowl feathers and the green feathers are from the rare kākāpō bird – a ground-dwelling parrot species native to New Zealand.

This is one of 153 cloaks in the British Museum’s Oceanic collection, 49 of which have feathers as a decorative element. Feathered cloaks (kahu huruhuru) became increasingly popular from the end of the nineteenth century, becoming the most prestigious type of cloak at the beginning of the twentieth century. This cloak is in superb condition, dating between 1900 and 1906. It was donated to the British Museum by Sir Herbert Daw in 1936 after being one of several cloaks placed on the coffin of Richard John Seddon, a former New Zealand Prime Minister at his funeral in 1908.

Weaving is predominantly undertaken by women, and cloak manufacture (whatu kākahu) is one of most highly respected of all fibre arts. Historically the finest cloaks were worn by high status men, reserved for special occasions. Some were given personal names, reinforcing their significance. Starting with the collection and preparation of the flax fibre and made without using a loom, a cloak can take several months to make depending on the style, complexity and materials used. It is thought that early cloaks took up to two years to finish. Today cloaks are held in extremely high regard because of their associations with chiefly status.

A large number of people visit the Oceanic collection every year, many of whom come to research, contemplate and admire the fibre arts in the Māori collection. The manufacture of cloaks experienced a number of stylistic and material adaptations over time and they continue to be made today. Many contemporary fibre artists are keen to study and to replicate traditional techniques, as well as introduce new materials.

The London-based community group Ngāti Rānana promotes Māori values and traditions, welcoming anyone with an interest in Māori culture. Also part of this wider community is Te Kōhanga Reo o Rānana, an environment for young children and families to experience and learn Māori language.

Ngāti Rānana actively participates in a wide variety of events including those in the museums and gallery sector. When the Māori display case was opened in the Wellcome Trust Gallery in 2008, the group performed a traditional blessing of the taonga or treasures on display.

Cloaks in particular are widely understood to be symbols of national Māori identity. The complex artistry is not only respected by the local London Māori community but by those farther afield, by fibre artists, academics and Museum professionals alike.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 18 October 2012.

The Māori cloak from Aotearoa is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Cloisonné decorated jar

Cloisonne jar with dragonJessica Harrison-Hall, British Museum

Cloisonne jar with dragon

Cloisonné decorated jar

Philanthropic Londoners are supporting the Evening Standard’s campaigns to encourage London primary school children to read more and to find young adults work through apprenticeship schemes. This culture of selfless giving is a vital part of London life. Visitors to the British Museum have benefited greatly from this generosity, which manifests itself in new buildings, refurbished galleries and acquisitions of new objects.

Jimmy Riesco (1877-1964) from Croydon was one such benefactor. He collected Chinese art and bequeathed his collection of Chinese ceramics to his home town, where it is now on display in the Riesco Gallery in the Museum of Croydon. This magnificent cloisonné jar, a testimony to the quality of Chinese craftsmanship, was once in his collection. It is decorated with powerful dragons with snake-like bodies and horns flying through the clouds.

Cloisonné is a method of decorating metal objects with a network of wire cells. Cloisonné wares are particularly time-consuming and labour-intensive to make. Craftsmen sketch a design onto a metal jar using a brush and black ink. Wires are cut out of sheet copper and fixed to the body of the jar, forming cells. The cells are filled with multicoloured opaque glass, which produces a brightly coloured surface. The jar is then fired in a kiln at about 600 degrees centigrade. After firing, the jar cools and the glass shrinks. Any gaps in the design are filled in and the jar is refired. This process is repeated up to four times. Finally the jar is polished and the metal wires gilded.

From two inscriptions around the rim of this jar, we know who commissioned it and where it was made. Zhu Zhanji (1399-1435), the Ming Emperor from 1426 to 1435, commissioned it and eunuchs in the Forbidden City Palace in Beijing supervised its manufacture. Ming Emperors ordered such brightly coloured objects to decorate the vast halls of their palaces. The magnificent dragons were symbolic of the emperor. As you can see from walking around Chinatown today, dragons continue to be a powerful symbol of good luck.

There is only one other jar like this one in the world. It is in Switzerland in the Reitburg Museum, on loan from a private collection. Originally the two jars would probably have been displayed together in the Forbidden City Palace. The British Museum plans to reunite the jars in an exhibition beginning in September 2014, which will show the splendour of early Ming courts and the extraordinary connections that Ming China established with the rest of the world.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 11 October 2012.

The Cloisonné decorated jar is on display in Room 33: Asia

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figureNeil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

Otobo masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figure

This extraordinary painted steel sculpture was made in London by British/Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp, CBE. It depicts a man of the Kalabari people of southern Nigeria in an Otobo or hippopotamus masquerade costume; masquerade is a composite phenomenon in which song, movement, music and the different elements of the dancer’s costume are all integral parts of the performance.

The Otobo masquerade has been danced by Kalabari men for at least 200 years, yet here is a version made by a woman working in metal, a traditionally male medium of expression in Africa. Masquerade in Africa is an art of transformation, harnessing the powers of the natural and spirit worlds for the benefit of humankind, so Sokari’s innovative re-interpretation of a long-standing tradition would seem entirely appropriate.

Sokari was born in 1958 in Buguma, Nigeria, the cultural capital of the Kalabari people who live on 23 islands in the Niger Delta. She moved to Britain as a child and now lives and works near the Elephant and Castle in London. “My work is about what’s going on in London” she says, though part of that is a celebration of her own Kalabari culture, a theme which occurs in different ways in her work. “I live the reality of being both Nigerian and British, but feeling outside both cultures”.

The UK’s largest Nigerian population is found in the capital, in Lambeth and Southwark, but in particular, Peckham. Census figures show Peckham – one of the most diverse areas of the country – with the most Nigerian-born people in Britain.

Sokari’s version of an Otobo masquerader is displayed in the African Galleries next to three examples of carved wooden Otobo masks, one of which (collected by Sokari herself) was made in the late twentieth century, over a century after the other two, though stylistically they are almost identical.

However, avant-garde European artists of the early twentieth century would almost certainly have assumed these masks to be examples of spontaneous creativity, unfettered by the artistic conventions of Western tradition, rather than representing slowly changing, highly conservative artistic traditions – the very things European artists were trying to escape.

The African Galleries – with the help of artists such as Sokari – seek to overturn this approach, showing the strength and diversity of art from across the continent from the earliest times to the best of contemporary art from Africa.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 4 October 2012.

The Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure is on display in Room 25: Africa

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The Beau Street Hoard: counting ancient money

Beau Street HoardEleanor Ghey and Henry Flynn, British Museum

If you listen carefully outside the Department of Coins and Medals at the moment you may hear the chink of money being counted. It’s not a surprise donation or a lottery win, but Roman coins from the Beau Street Hoard being sorted into imperial reign, bag by bag, to obtain an idea of the date and contents of the hoard.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

We collected the coins from conservator Julia Tubman in stages, as each bag was removed from the soil block the hoard was found in. Some are surprisingly heavy, about as much as I can lift comfortably. The silver coins have a pleasing weight in the hand and do not look over 1,700 years old.

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation taken at the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences. © University of Southampton

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation taken at the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences. © University of Southampton

The next stage of our work is to provide information on the hoard so it can be given a provisional valuation as part of the Treasure process. The hoard has already been declared Treasure at inquest under the Treasure Act 1996. Now the coins are almost all separate and reasonably clean, it will be possible for an independent expert to do this. As museum curators, we do not have expertise in questions of commercial value but we provide a listing of the contents. The provisional value is then considered by the Treasure Valuation Committee, which recommends a final value. The purchasing museum (in this case the Roman Baths Museum) is then able to raise funds for this amount, from which a reward is paid to interested parties (usually the finder and landowner) as applicable.

The results so far…

We have been able to sort and count seven of the eight Roman money bags contained within the hoard – one is still undergoing conservation. The total so far is 14,646 coins, but as the final bag is large we expect this to go up to over 16,000 coins.

A table showing the different types and amounts of coins in the hoard

A table showing the different types and amounts of coins in the hoard

In my previous post I described the three different types of coins in the hoard (denarii and early (silvery) and later (debased) radiates). With these three types of coins one might expect a wide date range between the bags. This has not been the case. We have the very latest denarii and late silver radiates, so that the bags could have been deposited within 20 to 30 years of each other (or sorted and re-deposited together). At the moment, the latest coins in the hoard date to the mid AD 270s quite precisely.

Parts of the hoard and some of the tools used by conservator Julia Tubman to excavate it on display

Parts of the hoard and some of the tools used by conservator Julia Tubman to excavate it on display

A conservation-themed display of the Beau Street Hoard is now on show in Case seven of the Citi Money Gallery. This case focuses on Treasure and hoarding and features a changing display intended to highlight new or exciting Treasure finds. The Beau Street display focuses on the excavation of the soil block and subsequent cleaning of the coins by Julia Tubman.

The content of the hoard is represented by three piles of coins – one pile of each denomination found in the moneybags – and the seven-week process of excavation and cleaning is illustrated using time-lapse video footage of the removal of the coins from the soil block.

An X-ray image, which provided the first visual evidence of the grouping of the coins and acted as a guide for the excavation, is also featured in the video. Some of the tools used by Julia during this process are displayed alongside the coins which have been cleaned for identification.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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Exploring the lost kingdoms of South America

Tortora reed boat, Lake Titicaca, 1970sLeonora Duncan and Jago Cooper, British Museum

South America has witnessed the emergence of some of the most intriguing and diverse ancient cultures in the world.

Four of these dynamic and fascinating cultures are being explored in a BBC Four series, Lost Kingdoms of South America, which starts broadcasting on Monday 14 January at 21.00. The series explores the different pathways to social complexity taken in four cultural regions of South America long before Europeans arrived over the horizon.

Here at the British Museum, the South American collection includes over 50,000 objects collected over the past 350 years. These treasures reveal some fascinating stories about the diverse cultures that existed for over 12,000 years before the arrival of Columbus and many of which continue to thrive today.

Tunjo, Muisca, AD 600-1600

Tunjo, Muisca, AD 600-1600

We wanted to draw attention to some of the amazing objects in the collection that can help tell the stories of the four cultures featured in the BBC Four series. New thematic content on the Museum website takes a look at how the Chachapoya, Tiwanaku, Muisca/Tairona, and Chimu lived in completely different environments, from the Amazon to the Andes, from desert to the Caribbean coast and yet all had in common the highest of cultural achievements.

Tortora reed boat, Lake Titicaca, 1970s

Tortora reed boat, Lake Titicaca, 1970s

However, what is particularly interesting is that they all took different routes to developing social complexity building on trade, agriculture, craftsmanship and warfare respectively. Each of the objects we’ve chosen contributes its own individual story to this narrative revealing in all their wonderment the truth behind the rise of the Lost Kingdoms of South America.

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Explore the featured kingdoms and related objects in the British Museum collection, or for more information contact Leonora Duncan or Jago Cooper in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

Lost Kingdoms of South America is on BBC Four at 21.00 on Mondays from 14 January

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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.

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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

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

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