British Museum blog

The mystery of the Fetter Lane hoard

Amelia Dowler, Curator of Greek and Roman Provincial Coins, British Museum

In 1908 workmen excavating foundations for a house in Fetter Lane (City of London) found 46 coins in a pot. The Rev’d FD Ringrose purchased the hoard and published an account in 1911 but focussed on describing the coins rather than the circumstances of the find. By the time the coins were bequeathed to the British Museum in 1914, there was no trace of the pot and no description of it either. There is no full account of exactly how the hoard was found and whilst Roman hoards are often uncovered in Britain (for example the Didcot, Hoxne and Beau Street hoards), the Fetter Lane hoard remains something of a mystery.

Map London 1900

Extract from Pocket Atlas and Guide to London 1900 showing the British Museum and Fetter Lane (bottom right)

The Fetter Lane coins were all minted in Alexandria, in Egypt, between AD 58 and AD 284. At this period in the Roman Empire, official coins were produced at centrally controlled mints for use across the empire. However, many other mints also produced civic coins, usually in copper alloys, to be used in the local area. Coins had first been minted in Alexandria under the Ptolemaic dynasty (c.312–30 BC), which continued after Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC. Unlike in most other provinces, Alexandria was a centrally controlled mint and the coins were initially made of debased silver before declining into a mainly copper alloy coinage. They circulated locally in the eastern Mediterranean and did not form part of the official Roman denomination system.

The earliest dated coin in the hoard (Year 5: 58/59 AD), depicting Nero. British Museum 1914,0403.2

The earliest dated coin in the hoard (Year 5: 58/59 AD), depicting Nero. British Museum 1914,0403.2

Coins used in the Roman province of Britannia were from official Roman mints and we know this both from coin finds and from references to coins at the time, such as at Vindolanda. Why then would these Alexandrian coins be brought to Britain where they formed no part of the currency system?

Over the past 200 years or so when unusual coins like these have been found in Britain they have often been dismissed as modern imports, perhaps brought back to the country as souvenirs from the Grand Tour, or by soldiers returning from service. There is a long history of these finds being dismissed, particularly by coin experts in museums and universities. I am compiling a catalogue of this material to look into this question further: are coins from the Mediterranean world (and sometimes further afield) modern losses or did they arrive in Iron Age or Roman times? These are coins – minted between the 5th century BC up to the end of the 3rd century AD – which would not have been part of a currency system in Britain.

The latest dated coin in the hoard (Year 2: 283/4 AD), depicting Carinus. British Museum 1914,0403.46

The latest dated coin in the hoard (Year 2: 283/4 AD), depicting Carinus. British Museum 1914,0403.46

This is a particularly relevant question today when the Portable Antiquities Scheme is regularly listing coins with similar origins to the database. The steadily increasing number of ‘foreign’ coins means that it is important to readdress this question rather than dismissing it out of hand. There are examples both of coins being found in known contexts, such as in the Sacred Spring in Bath, and also where we know that coins were modern imports, such as the Alexandrian coins found on the wreck of the HMS Pomone. For the majority of coins however we have no clear information about their findspots.

Where does this leave the Fetter Lane hoard? The fact that the coins were found together is also unusual: when ‘foreign’ coins like these are found they are usually single finds or are a rare foreign inclusion in a group of imperial Roman coins. The coins look in similar condition so it is quite likely that they were a group for some time despite the date range of the coins from AD 58 (during the reign of Nero) to AD 284 (during the reign of Carinus). It is unfortunate that the pot they were found in has been lost, as that might have supplied more information about what period they were deposited. There are a few plausible options to consider.

The coins could have been brought back as a souvenir group from Egypt by a Grand Tourist or by someone, perhaps a soldier, transiting through the Suez Canal. Souvenirs of this sort were fairly common and would have been reasonably cheap to buy locally in Egypt. After this they may have been put into a pot as a foundation deposit for a house in Fetter Lane at some point in the 1800s and were then found in 1908 during further works.

The coins could have been collected together in antiquity and deposited together during the Roman occupation of London (Londinium) after AD 50. From the dates of the coins themselves, this would have to have been after AD 284 when Londinium was a thriving Roman city. But why would this have happened? It is possible that these coins were collected together by a traveller or trader coming to London at this period. We know that the population of Londinium contained many foreigners who arrived during this time so the city was quite well connected to the rest of the Roman world. Perhaps these were kept as a memento of home or travels, or deposited for safe-keeping or as an offering for a safe journey to London.

Another intriguing proposition is that during the 3rd century AD there was a monetary crisis across the Roman Empire and at the turn of the century Roman coinage was reformed. At this point, local coinages ceased, leaving only the official Roman imperial mints producing coins. In Alexandria minting ceased in AD 297, shortly before the official reforms. It is possible that the coins were gathered together and brought westwards to fill gaps in the available currency, officially or unofficially. Or simply that when these coins became defunct they were gathered together to be used as a source of metal or kept by people thinking that one day they could use them again. However, there is no contemporary, corroborating evidence for these proposals other than the fact that there was a monetary crisis and a coinage reform.

Without any further context for the Fetter Lane hoard it is, for the moment at least, likely to remain an intriguing puzzle. By collecting together further evidence across the country, I hope to build up a picture of what kinds of coins arrived in ancient times and which arrived more recently.

Image of the Fetter Lane hoard at the British Museum. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

Image of the Fetter Lane hoard at the British Museum. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

The Fetter Lane hoard is currently on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Citi Money Gallery is supported by Citi.

Further reading:

FD Ringrose (1911) ‘Finds of Alexandrian Coins in London’ The Numismatic Chronicle (4th series) vol. 11, pp. 357–8

Filed under: British Museum, coins and medals, Collection, Money Gallery, Research, , , , , , ,

House of memories: an app and the material culture of money

Ben Alsop, Project Curator, Coins and Medals collection, British Museum

Objects which trigger memories can be peculiar things. Often it is not the finest, most visually arresting things that spark a particular memory. For me it is a pipe – the kind that has a small bowl and shiny black plastic stem. Whenever I see a pipe like this I immediately think of my grandpa who used to love to dedicate his time to cleaning, refilling and smoking the brown tangled tobacco he used to squash down into the end of it. To be honest most of the time it wasn’t even lit, just an object which he could chew in contemplation, or use to point at something else on the opposite side of the room. When he died I remember the family meeting in the flat where he had lived with my Grandma. When I walked in the pipe was on its own on the side table by the telephone. I sometimes wonder what happened to it.

The British Museum is, in part, renowned for objects that are often viewed as the pinnacle of human artistic expression. These objects are made using the finest materials, for or at the behest of the most influential and powerful in society. And yet the Museum is also full of objects that don’t speak of privilege and wealth. They speak of the lives of ordinary people, what they may have worn, what they believed, what they ate and drank from and most interestingly for me, what they used to pay for things.

A few months ago my colleague Mieka Harris (The Citi Money Gallery Education Manager) and I worked on a project with National Museums Liverpool where we were asked to suggest objects from the Coins and Medals collection at the British Museum which could be used in an app. The app was to be produced as part of the House of Memories project which aims to support the carers of people living with dementia. The app, now in its third incarnation, includes objects from National Museums Liverpool, The Cinema Museum in Elephant and Castle, Brighton Pavilion and Museums, Bexley Museum and Heritage Trust and the British Museum.

Our brief was to suggest objects that would have been used in ordinary life. The Coins and Medals collection is perfect for this. The material culture of money not only touches almost everyone in society but can also be very evocative. This fact, when combined with the great variety of objects in the collection, made the decision-making process rather tricky.

Collection of Co-operative tokens

Co-operative plastic tokens selected for the House of Memories app. British Museum

As an example, one group of objects we suggested were co-operative plastic tokens which people used to leave out to pay for deliveries instead of coins. These small, brightly-coloured plastic discs would be the stuff of everyday life and pass through people’s hands on a daily basis. Other objects included a leaflet from Camden council explaining how to pay the poll tax, a three-pence coin (threepenny bit), a ten-shilling note (ten bob), a collection of cardboard toy-money and a National Savings money box. In total we suggested twenty objects, all with associated images and sounds to give context and encourage discussion between carers and those living with dementia.

Cardboard toy-money. British Museum

Cardboard toy-money included in the House of Memories app. British Museum

National Savings money box selected for the House of Memories app. British Museum

National Savings money box selected for the House of Memories app. British Museum

The user can explore the app thematically or simply browse the objects, saving those which they have an affinity with to a memory tree, memory box or timeline. These objects can then be saved to a personal profile so they can be looked at and chatted about again at any time. It was a really fantastic project to be involved with and demonstrates the power of museum collections to act as a catalyst to memories and conversation.

The House of Memories app is now available to download for free from the iTunes store or Google play.

The British Museum’s involvement in this project has been supported by Citi through the Citi Money Gallery.

Filed under: coins and medals, Collection, Money Gallery, , , , , ,

The Sudanese lyre: an object with many voices

By David Francis, Interpretation Officer

Of all the objects I’ve worked with in my eight years as an interpretation officer at the British Museum, the Sudanese lyre is perhaps the most intriguing. Made in northern Sudan, probably in the late19th century, it would have been played by a male musician at weddings and harvest festivals as part of a small band. It may also have been used in zār ceremonies – healing rituals involving spirit possession that are still practised in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia today.

Just as fascinating as the actual instrument are the coins, beads, shells and, as yet, unidentified objects that are attached to the lyre. In a sense, the Sudanese lyre is both a single object and an assemblage of many objects each with their own story to tell. In this blog I talk with some of the curators at the British Museum and the Royal Armouries in Leeds to identify what these objects are, and speculate on why they may have been attached to the lyre.

Sudanese lyre, probably late 19th century. British Museum

Sudanese lyre, probably late 19th century. British Museum

Detail showing the objects attached to the lyre which include coins, beads, shells and some (as yet) unidentified objects.

Detail showing the objects attached to the lyre which include coins, beads, shells and some (as yet) unidentified objects.

Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum

DF: Chris why do we think the lyre player attached these objects to this instrument?

CS: They may have been given to the musician as gifts, or payment for his services. Many of the objects attached to the lyre are currency. Obviously we have the Turkish and British coins, but bead work in Africa was also used as a means of exchange. Millefiori beads – meaning ‘thousand flowers’ in Italian – were first mass produced in Venice and then the rest of Europe for this purpose. Cowrie shells were also cultivated on vast rafts in the Maldives and came to Sudan to be used as currency through Indian Ocean trade.

DF: The objects come from a wide range of places then, what’s the significance of this?

CS: For centuries Sudan has been a hub for the movement of people, goods and ideas. Port Sudan, in particular, is an important link in the Indian Ocean trade network, as well as being located on the pilgrim route to Mecca. For much of the 19th century, Sudan was also under imperial rule. From 1821 to 1885, Sudan was controlled by Ottoman Egypt and then with the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, Britain had an increasing interest in the region. The objects attached to the lyre reflect this history of trade and imperial ambition.

Two millefiori beads attached to the lyre.

Two millefiori beads attached to the lyre.

Ottoman coins

Vesta Curtis, Curator of Middle Eastern coins, British Museum

DF: The vast majority of coins attached to the lyre are from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. I’ve counted over one hundred hanging from the frame. Can you tell me what’s written on them?

VC: The coins are indeed Ottoman and were minted in in Egypt and Constantinople or, as it’s known now, Istanbul. They each have the names of the Sultans minted on them in the form of their tughra – a kind of imperial monogram. The inscription also contains the date indicating the start of their respective reigns. So we have the coins of Sultan Abdul Aziz with the date 1861 (AH 1277) and the coins of Sultan Abdul Hamid II with the date 1876 (AH 1293).

DF: Sudan was under Turkish-Egyptian rule at the time, yes?

VC: It was. It had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire since 1821. However, these were the last two Ottoman rulers of Sudan. In 1885 the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, fell to the forces of Muhammad Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi or ‘guided one’. This effectively ended Turkish-Egyptian rule in Sudan.

DF: The so-called Mahdi minted coins I believe, are there any attached to the lyre?

VC: We’ve found no coins attached to the lyre dating from his reign, or from the Anglo-Egyptian period which followed.

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Misr, AD 1861 (AH 1277)

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Misr, AD 1861 (AH 1277).

Lyre coin 7 (i)_JPG

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II, Misr, AD 1876 (AH 1293).

British coins

Tom Hockenhull, Curator of modern money, British Museum

DF: There are a couple of British coins attached to the lyre, can you tell me about them?

TH: The first one is a British halfpenny, dating to 1861. On one side you can see the image of Queen Victoria (r. 1837‒1901) with her distinctive ‘bun’ hairstyle. This was the new portrait of the queen, which had only been introduced onto coinage in the previous year. The second coin is more unusual. On one side is the British East India Company crest as well as an inscription reading ‘Island of Sumatra’, and the date 1804.

British halfpenny, 1861.

British halfpenny, 1861.

Trade token with British East India Company crest, probably 1830s.

Trade token with British East India Company crest, probably 1830s.

DF: Okay, so it’s a lot earlier than all the other coins attached to the lyre?

TH: The date is likely to be false. Although the coin has got a British East India Company crest, it is unlikely to have actually been issued by the British East India Company.

DF: So it’s a forgery?

TH: It’s not really a forgery as there was no original to forge. It was probably made by a company in Birmingham to meet a demand for trading tokens around Singapore. Stamford Raffles had established the city in 1819 as a trading outlet and merchants in the region would have needed a currency to use for trade. This token fulfilled that function.

DF: Could you hazard a guess at the date for this coin?

TH: I’d say at least 1830s, perhaps later.

The mystery object

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, Royal Armouries

DF: One of the objects – a small metal mechanism – is yet to be identified. There’s been a lot of speculation on social media that it could be the firing mechanism for a firearm. Is this a possibility?

JF: I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it isn’t! I can understand why people might think this was a firearm mechanism; there is a superficial resemblance to a percussion hammer, and maybe, if you squint, a trigger! However, neither are shaped or positioned on the mechanism like a real hammer or trigger, to actually enable the operator to use them for their intended purposes of cocking and firing the gun.

The mystery object.

The mystery object.

DF: What particular features mean that this object couldn’t be used as a firing mechanism?

JF: A real flintlock or percussion gun lock is far simpler than this. The short ribbed cylinder could theoretically be some sort of barrel, but is far too short to be functional. On the outside you have either a hollow pan for priming powder or a simple nipple to which you’d fit a cap, as on a cap gun.

This device has a round hollow feature that could conceivably function as a pan for priming powder, but no other features of a flintlock mechanism – and no nipple that you could fit a percussion cap to. Finally, the mechanism is totally the wrong shape for a gun lock.

DF: Could it perhaps be a toy or imitation gun?

JF: Cap guns had been invented as early as the 1870s and were usually made of cast metal rather than the forged iron typical of real firearms, so I did wonder if this might be a toy. Unfortunately, if anything, cap guns were even simpler than the real thing, and this object has lots of extra bells and whistles that again, would serve no function on a gun – real or otherwise.

The charms and the zār ceremony

Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum

DF: As well reflecting the various networks of trade and empire in 19th-century Sudan, there’s also a possibility that the objects attached to the lyre might have been used in the zār ceremony itself?

CS: Yes, many of the objects attached to the lyre, such as the prayer beads and Islamic amulets, have a religious function. The coins, beads and shells may have also have been attached to the lyre as charms to attract particular spirits. Zār spirits are believed to be invisible – in Sudan they’re referred to as ‘the red wind’. But they also take on specific human forms that have a special significance in Sudanese history. You get zār spirits that are Turkish officials, Ethiopian Christian priests, British engineers and enslaved Africans from the south to name but a few. These objects might have been attached to the lyre to appeal to these spirits.

DF: Can you tell me a little bit more about the zār ceremony itself?

CS: The zār ceremony is a healing ceremony closely associated with Islamic mysticism. Although it’s currently illegal in Sudan, it still occurs throughout the region today. Within the zār belief system, it’s thought that certain people, particularly married women, can become possessed by spirits. These spirits cause the possessed mental and physical discomfort, which conventional medicine can’t cure. Zār ceremonies are held to appease and in some sense celebrate these spirits. During a specific type of zār ceremony known as a zār tambura, lyres like this one are played to calm restless spirits and also put the patient into a rhythmic trance.

DF: Is the spirit exorcised during the ceremony?

CS: No, once a patient has been possessed the spirit will remain with them for the rest of their life. The ceremony is instead a means of allowing the sufferer to learn to cope with the spirit that has possessed them. During the trance phase of the ceremony the spirit manifests itself, becoming embodied in the movement and dance of the patient. The female leader of the ceremonies, known as a shayka, tries to identify the spirit and find out what it wants. She might give the patient clothing, or incense, or even alcohol if it was a Christian spirit, in order to appease it. The objects attached to the lyre come from many regions and could potentially appeal to a wide variety of spirits. They therefore might play a part in this process of spirit appeasement.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 16 August 2015.

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What colour were Dorothy’s shoes? The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as monetary allegory

Mieka Harris Education Manager: Citi Money Gallery, British Museum

A classic children’s story? A fairytale? Or an interpretation on the international exchange rate system? In my role as Education Manager for the Citi Money Gallery I teamed up with students from the Children’s Hospital School at Great Ormond Street Hospital to explore concepts raised in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the Citi Money Gallery.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Wizard of Oz film (MGM, 1939) and the creation of those iconic shoes, worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy. But what colour were Dorothy’s shoes originally? In L Frank Baum’s book, originally published in 1900, they were not ruby red, but silver. Therefore some economists, politicians and historians believe that the story is actually a monetary allegory, outlining a proposed move from the gold standard to a bimetallic standard known as the ‘Free Silver Movement’ led by William Jennings Bryan in the US in 1896. For this reason, a copy of the book has a place in the Citi Money Gallery, alongside other objects and artefacts that depict the history of money.

Fixing the dollar against gold, creating a ‘universal’ currency, initially had a positive effect on economies; a lack of fluctuating currencies reduced profit risks and so increased trade. However, the Malthusian trap becomes apparent with any natural reserve, with the mining rate unable to match the growth in trade. At the time, America was in a period of depression and the populist belief suggested that a bimetallic standard would enable the money stock to be increased. So, Dorothy’s silver shoes walking on a gold road could represent the two metals working together to provide a route towards a stable economy.

Like with many things, as soon as something is pointed out, other potential double meanings become apparent. Is the land called ‘Oz’ because this is an abbreviation of ounces, the standard measure for gold? Did farmers (the Scarecrow) need more business sense (a brain) to help them survive during a period of economic instability? Is the all-powerful Wizard really the President, who hides behind a smoke-screen of promises but in fact has very little actual power? Do the different locations of the four witches represent the geographical divides in America? Did advances in industry create automated production lines which reduced the workforce (or created workers with no heart)? The students at the Children’s Hospital School set out to examine some of these concepts, and others.

Object handling.

Object handling.

Students shared their perceptions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, identifying key elements in the story. To put the book into context as a potential monetary allegory, students explored the history of money and some key economic concepts by handling objects from the Museum’s collection. A week of activities then followed, based on themes in the book and ideas generated by the students.

Making Dorothy's shoes.

Making Dorothy’s shoes.

In maths, students considered Dorothy’s shoes and the fact that they fit her and so they investigated what information can be gleaned about a person by knowing their shoe size. The shoe theme was carried into art, with students creating shoes using a variety of media.

Science lessons saw students investigating the melting power of water; with jellies being created in the shape of witches! The concept of the tin man having a heart was also explored, considering that if he had a heart, what other organs would he need and where would they all be placed.

Descriptive language used in the book and a character analysis of the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West were analysed during English, resulting in students creating job descriptions or personal statements applying these roles. Ben Alsop, curator of the Citi Money Gallery, supported this session and applied for the role of the Good Witch of the North, but unfortunately was deemed an unsuccessful applicant by the students based on his responses to the questions!

Working on the citizenship activity.

Working on the citizenship activity.

The values identified for these roles were further discussed in Citizenship. Money does not exist in Oz, so the children discussed this as well, creating a currency for Oz using ideas from the earlier session on the history of money.

The variety of activities and resources available to the students, combined with the commitment of the teachers at the Children’s Hospital School, made for a very enjoyable week. Learning was put into a different context, perceptions were challenged and concepts were investigated. Whether the story is a monetary allegory remained unresolved by the students, but the skills to question what we see and read were developed. Did the water have to be a certain temperature to melt the Wicked Witch? Can shoes change sizes? Could a heart function on its own without other organs? All very good questions, but the ultimate question in taking a view as to whether The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a children’s story or a monetary allegory surely has to be, ‘What colour were Dorothy’s shoes?’.

The work produced by the students at The Children’s Hospital School will be on display in the Clore Centre for Education in the British Museum from 11 December 2014 until 22 January 2015.

The Citi Money Gallery (Room 68) is on the Upper floor, admission free.

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The die that struck Britain’s first coins?

Ian Leins and Emma Morris, curators, Department of Coins and Medals, British Museum

Iron age coin die

Iron Age coin die. 2014,4014.1

Iron Age coin die, showing two sides and the face. 2014,4014.1

Iron Age coin die, showing two sides and the face. 2014,4014.1

One of the most recent acquisitions made by the Department of Coins and Medals is a highly unusual object – an ancient punch or ‘die’ used to manufacture coins in the second century BC. The die was found in Bredgar, Kent by a metal detector user in 2013 and is being used to shed new light on when the first coins were made in Britain.

The earliest coins found in Iron Age Britain date from around the second century BC and, until recently, it was believed that they were produced in Gaul (a region roughly equivalent to modern day France and Belgium) and imported into south-east England. These coins, known as Gallo Belgic A, were based on the gold coinage (staters) issued by King Philip II, ruler of the Greek kingdom of Macedon from 359 – 336 BC and father of Alexander the Great.

Gold stater of Philip II, showing obverse (front) and reverse. 1911,0208.2

Gold stater of Philip II, showing obverse (front) and reverse. 1911,0208.2

Gallo Belgic A stater_544

Philip’s coin shows a representation of the god Apollo on one side and a chariot drawn by two horses on the other. Iron Age coins derived from these staters carry abstract versions of these images. The hair and laurel wreath on the image of Apollo, for example, are much exaggerated. Similarly, the image of the horse on the reverse of the coin has been stylised and is reminiscent of the Prehistoric chalk horses found on the hillsides of Britain, such as the one at Uffington.

Aerial view from a paramotor of the White Horse at Uffington. Photo by Dave Price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence

Aerial view from a paramotor of the White Horse at Uffington. Photo by Dave Price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence

Close examination of the coin die revealed that it was used in the production of the early Gallo-Belgic A coins. What this means is that, although it is the third Iron Age coin die to be found in the UK (the others are also in the British Museum), it is almost certainly the earliest. The most significant aspect of this discovery is the fact that it is a British find. This raises the intriguing possibility that the earliest known coins from Britain were actually made here and not just imports from the Continent.

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

Around 250 Gallo-Belgic A coins are known from Britain and France, but unfortunately the new die cannot be linked to any of them. This fact has been used to suggest that it may have been a forger’s die. In reality, however, we can read very little into the fact that we do not have an example of a coin struck using this die. Little is known about the mechanics of coin production in the Iron Age and, in particular, about the authorities that produced them. The distinction between an ‘official’ and a ‘forger’s’ die may not be have been relevant in Iron Age society. A programme of scientific analysis will tell us more about how the die was made and used, but its precise origins are likely to remain a mystery.
The die is on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi
To find out more about what to do if you find an ancient coin or other artefact with a metal detector or otherwise, visit the Portable Antiquities website, where we answer frequently asked questions about treasure and other finds.

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Putting a mobile phone behind glass

Pamoja women’s group displaying crafts made for sale in Kenya in 2011. © Ndunge Kiiti.Ellen Feingold, project curator, British Museum

Walking around the British Museum one often sees visitors using their mobile phones to communicate, photograph their favourite objects, and record memories of their visit. Yet some visitors might be surprised to see a mobile phone behind the glass of a display case. While mobile phones are familiar, contemporary and useful things, they are also fascinating artefacts in their own right, and help us tell a story of how they are not only transforming the way we communicate and document our experiences, but also how we spend and save money.

Mobile money services are currently emerging across the globe and gaining popularity, particularly in places with limited banking infrastructure. These services allow users to transfer money to individuals and businesses through their mobile phone networks, avoiding the need for banks and cash. A new display in the British Museum’s Citi Money Gallery explores mobile money services across Africa.

As one of the curators of this display, I was responsible for the section on Kenya, where mobile money was pioneered in 2007. Kenya’s first and leading mobile money service is called M-Pesa; the M stands for mobile and Pesa is a Kiswahili word for money. M-Pesa’s success in gaining customers in Kenya has been the subject both of scholarly research and media attention. So, for the new display, I decided to focus on how this new technology is currently used and is affecting the lives of its users in Kenya.

Pamoja women’s group displaying crafts made for sale in Kenya in 2011. © Ndunge Kiiti.

Pamoja women’s group displaying crafts made for sale in Kenya in 2011. © Ndunge Kiiti.

While developing the new display I found research by two Kenyan academics, Dr. Ndunge Kiiti and Dr. Jane Mutinda, who study how women’s groups in rural Kenya are using mobile money services and the impact these services have on the lives of group members. They have found that mobile money services are central to the efforts of these women’s groups to build small businesses, which they hope will help to reduce poverty as well as gender inequality in their communities.

Group members use mobile money services to make individual and group transactions as well as pay group dues, which serve as capital for investments in new business ventures, such as making crafts for sale.

After learning about their research, I contacted Dr. Kiiti and together we explored what objects would help to share this research with visitors. We agreed that a colourful mobile phone purse made by the Pamoja women’s group in Kenya would make an ideal addition to the display. The purse symbolises how access to mobile money services has facilitated the creation of new businesses, like the one that made and sold the purse. The purse also enables the continued use of mobile money services in Kenya because it makes it easy for women to carry their mobile phones with them wherever they go.

Mobile phone purse made for sale by Pamoja women’s group, Kenya, 2011, donated by Ndunge Kiiti.

Mobile phone purse made for sale by Pamoja women’s group, Kenya, 2011, donated by Ndunge Kiiti.

In addition to working with Dr. Kiiti, I sought the assistance of a researcher living in Nairobi, Dr. Gregory Deacon. He searched through shops and kiosks for objects that illustrate how mobile money services are accessed and advertised in everyday life.

Mobile money in Africa display in the Citi Money Gallery

Mobile money in Africa display in the Citi Money Gallery

One of the objects he sent me was a bottle-opener advertising a brand new mobile money product called M-Shwari. This product represents a new frontier in mobile money because it moves beyond basic transactions by giving users the ability to save and borrow money via their mobile phones. The M-Shwari bottle opener is included in the display because it signifies how rapidly mobile money services are evolving. Dr. Deacon also collected the objects that are essential for accessing mobile money services, namely SIM cards and a used mobile phone.

By putting the mobile phone Dr. Deacon collected behind glass, I hope that this display will help visitors to see mobile phones as objects that are not only useful for communicating and storing memories, but are also agents of economic and social change in Kenya and increasingly around the world.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Researching ‘old’ as well as ‘new’ kinds of money in West Africa

Documents from 1931-33Sophie Mew, Project Curator, Money in Africa

I’ve been working on the Money in Africa research project to understand how coin and note currencies were introduced to the coastal regions of Africa and how their usage had spread widely by the close of the nineteenth century.

With two former British West African colonies, the Gold Coast (what is now known as Ghana) and Sierra Leone (one of the earliest British settlements on the coast), most of my research so far has been carried out at the National Archives in London, in Accra (Ghana) and in Freetown (Sierra Leone). In each place, I’ve consulted documents relating to a wide range of accounts about currencies. These included, for example, colonial despatches written by the governors of Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast and sent to the Secretaries of State in London; records that were created by and filed in the Treasury department in London, as well as diaries from merchants trading to West Africa.

Documents from the 1930s

Documents from 1931-33, PRAAD records

One of my early finds was a series of detailed instructions for traders on an expedition to the west coast of Africa in 1796. The Governor of Freetown at the time requested that the traders gather as much information as possible to understand what it was that locals preferred to trade with, at each stage, and at what value. At the National Archives in Ghana in June 2012, I found a series of similar despatches that were distributed to District Officers in 1944. Questions related to coins and notes and what they were used for, as they sought to gather information on the preferences of “the man on the street”. Responses suggested, for example, that people who could read preferred notes while labourers preferred coins. The 1/10th shilling was used as a counter for gambling in Obuasi, and notes could be inconvenient: the “average cloth wearing African was used to carrying his money tied up in a corner of his cloth with the result that notes became crumpled and torn, got wet and became pulp.”

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

I took my first trip to Sierra Leone in January 2013 where I researched the holdings of the branch of the National Archives, located on the University Campus (Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, is the oldest university in West Africa). At the top of a treacherously steep hill overlooking the city, I consulted lists of annual stipends that the British colonial government paid to local chiefs in exchange for leasing their land, and trawled through records of fines and fees paid to the colonial police to find out what currencies people were using and when.

In conjunction with my archival research for the Money in Africa project, I was also seeking information about the use of mobile money in Sierra Leone as part of a redisplay of an exhibition panel in the Citi Money Gallery. This display panel addresses the future of money and new technologies, and is updated every six months to showcase new studies.

As I questioned members of the public in Freetown, friends I had made, and staff members of mobile money companies, I understood the wariness that people have in trusting new kinds of money and the difficulties with trying out alternative systems. What I found fascinating here was that similar justifications for the practicality of using new coins and banknotes in the nineteenth century were being repeated to me within the contexts of mobile money in Sierra Leone today.

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Find out more about the Money in Africa project

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Bubbles and bankruptcy: financial crises in Britain since 1700

Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Threadneedle-Street in danger!, print, James Gillray, 1797Thomas Hockenhull, curator, British Museum

The 2008 banking crisis plunged the UK into a recession from which it has been struggling to recover ever since. However, this crisis is not the first to have affected Britain and it is unlikely to be the last. Here in the Department of Coins and Medals we decided to look at the bigger picture in an exhibition looking back at Britain’s financial crises since the 1700s.

Drawing upon our extensive collection, we found we had an object that related to almost every crisis to affect Britain since the advent of organised banking. This material ranged from share certificates for companies that failed and notes from failed banks, to reports and recriminations about crises. In some cases these objects are fragile and sensitive to light, meaning that they can never go on permanent display.

Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Threadneedle-Street in danger!, print, James Gillray, 1797.

Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Threadneedle-Street in danger!, print, James Gillray, 1797.

For the rest of the exhibition we wanted to show how ordinary people have, and will continue, to respond to financial crisis. Numerous cartoons and satirical prints have been produced over hundreds of years relating to crises, including a James Gillray print from 1797.

Champagne bottle given to a Northern Rock employee in 1997.

Champagne bottle given to a Northern Rock
employee in 1997.

Additionally, the artist Steve Bell – perhaps best known for his work in The Guardian newspaper – has loaned a work from 2011 entitled ‘Bank Levy’ that depicts a banker as a distraught fat cat in a suit having its claws clipped by the Chancellor George Osborne.

Other exhibits, for example, include a champagne bottle given out by Northern Rock to its employees when the Building Society demutualised to become a bank in 1997. This object was retained by its recipient, a former employee, and provides an ironic reminder that demutualisation was greeted optimistically, supposedly enabling Northern Rock to expand its business more easily.

Instead, history records that its investment portfolio would fail within 10 years, triggering the first run on a UK bank since that which occurred during the collapse of Overend, Gurney and Co. in 1866.

The collapse of Overend, Gurney and Co. features elsewhere in the exhibition and, in both instances the banks failed because their customers lost faith in their ability to protect and reinvest their savings.


The centrepiece of the exhibition is a contemporary sculpture by Justine Smith, a London-based artist. Made from real UK banknotes built into a house of cards, the artwork neatly symbolises the occasionally precarious nature of financial investment.

I hope many people will get a chance to come and see the display, to find out how 300 years of boom and bust have helped to shape Britain’s financial landscape.

Bubbles and bankruptcy: financial crises in Britain since 1700 is open from
29 November 2012 to 5 May 2013.

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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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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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Vanished beneath the waters of the Mediterranean, the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. They will be seen alongside fascinating objects from major Egyptian museums for the first time in the UK in this blockbuster exhibition.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016

#archaeology #history #ancientegypt 
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation Discover the remarkable relationship between the major ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece, unveiled in our monumental new exhibition #SunkenCities – announced today! 300 outstanding objects will be brought together in this blockbuster exhibition, including many Egyptian objects shown in the UK for the first time. Preserved and buried under the sea for over a thousand years, the stunning objects range from magnificent colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. They tell stories of political power and popular belief, myth and migration, gods and kings. Journey through centuries of encounters between two celebrated cultures, meeting iconic historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Hadrian and Antinous on the way.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016

#archaeology #ancientegypt #history 
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation We are delighted to announce our first major exhibition on underwater archaeology! Submerged under the sea for over a thousand years, two lost cities of ancient Egypt were recently rediscovered. Their amazing discovery is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016
#archaeology #ancientegypt #history
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at


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