British Museum blog

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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