British Museum blog

‘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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Edward Burne-Jones was born #onthisday in 1833. This watercolour from his ‘Flower Book’ is titled ‘White Garden’. This was a name for Atriplex hortensis, a small garden plant that has edible leaves. In this painting Burne-Jones has created an imaginary ‘white garden’, populated with lilies that are being picked by two white-clad angelic figures. Like other figures in his works, they appear dressed in classically inspired white robes, with their blonde hair tied back.
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