Citi, a large global bank, has formed a six-year partnership with
the British Museum that has resulted in a major redisplay of the
Museum’s Money Gallery.
The newly redesigned exhibit opened June 25 in London.
The history of money is constantly growing and the way in which
the British Museum wants to present its collection has also changed.
Featuring more than 1,000 objects from the British Museum’s extensive
collections, the Citi Money Gallery, as the exhibit area is now known,
looks at the history of the world through the lens of money spanning
four and a half millennia to the latest digital technology.
The gallery has a completely new design and feel, with new themes
and bright decoration. The display cases have been replaced, the
lighting renewed and the original content of the displays reassessed
to reflect new knowledge regarding monetary history.
Coin exhibit history
The British Museum was founded in 1753, but 246 years passed
before it had a money gallery. From 1880 until the start of World War
II it displayed electrotypes of coins and medals in desk cases
illustrating, within a numismatic framework, the range of materials in
its collections. The display was removed for safety reasons during the
hostilities. The space in which the display had been held was damaged
by a fire bomb and, after the exhibit area was reconstructed, was
allocated to another department.
From the 1970s, a few coins were featured in various galleries,
such as the Roman, Greek, Chinese and others. However, no standalone
numismatic exhibition was established until 1978. Titled “2000 years
of Coins and Medals in Britain,” that exhibit was an updated
traditional overview of numismatic history from the Iron Age forward.
This sequential story was displayed in a circular space ending with a
circular case in the center. The exhibition was intended to be staged
for just one year, but delayed plans for the refurbishment of the
display area meant that it ran until 1985.
Another temporary display was presented in 1986. This served a
double purpose. In that year the International Numismatic Congress was
staged in London and it also happened to be the 150th anniversary of
the founding of the Royal Numismatic Society. Instead of presenting a
purely numismatic display, it was decided to focus the exhibition on
money, thereby placing coins, paper money, ingots, coin weights and
more in a broader monetary context. It soon became apparent that this
pioneering approach was right. The exhibition drew the crowds and, at
the same time, the admiration of the numismatic community. It is said
that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Certainly, other
museums around the world adopted this approach. This spurred the
British Museum to have its own Money Gallery.
The Department of Coins and Medals was promised the space for such
a gallery, providing a sponsor could be found to fund the cost of
refurbishing the space and providing the display units. Sponsorship
was secured from HSBC Holdings plc, one of the world’s largest banking
and financial services organizations.
HSBC’s generous donation of £1.8 million supported an
international display, showing money that was simultaneously invented
in China and Western Europe, as HSBC was marketing its global reach.
(Full disclosure: Author John Andrew worked for HSBC at the time and
acted as an unofficial adviser to Andrew Burnett, then keeper of the
Department of Coins and Medals, and to Joe Cribb, the leader of the
curators, who were working on the project.) The Money Gallery opened
in 1997 and HSBC’s sponsorship has long since ended. The Gallery
closed in December 2011 and remained closed through to June 2012 for
the extensive work undertaken.
Citi Money Gallery
The Citi Money Gallery certainly places money in a historical
context when the contemporary global economic situation is under close
scrutiny. The entire object selection and design of the gallery has
been refreshed. New thematic approaches are used on either side of the gallery.
One side considers the authorities behind the issue of money — the
rulers, governments and institutions that placed it in circulation,
backed and guaranteed its value.
The other side focuses on individuals. For example, what they used
money for, including the social and cultural significance that it has
had, as well as its financial uses. These themes progress
chronologically, allowing visitors to walk through the history of money.
The beginnings of coinage and the way in which money has taken
different forms around the world is explored. The early exhibits
include Lydian electrum coins, thought to be among the oldest coins in
existence, as well as Chinese bronze spade and knife money and Indian
Other themes in the gallery include the manufacture, counting,
saving and hoarding of money; and its ritual and religious uses,
including burying coins with the dead and its use on pilgrimages and
for alms-giving. The magical properties of coins as talismans are
explored as indeed is the problem of forgery.
In the modern-day part of the gallery, sections examine modern
economic institutions, banking, financial crises and who, or what,
guarantees the value of the currency in circulation.
As the means of making payment is an area that has been subject to
quite sweeping changes in recent years, the curatorial staff will
regularly update the gallery’s content. Naturally, it will include
information about the advent of plastic cards, but it will also
feature ways that money continues to change lives.
To create brand-new case studies for the gallery, the curatorial
staff at the British Museum has already been working with the
Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion at the
University of California, Irvine. The first featured case study
details the use of mobile phones to make payments in Haiti following
the devastating earthquake of 2010. The quake almost completely
destroyed Haiti’s banking infrastructure, and since then the use of
mobile phones for spending and saving money has increased
dramatically. In this area of technology, Haiti is ahead of Europe and
America, which are only just beginning the trial use of mobile money
systems and cashless payments on a large scale.
The gallery will also feature new finds and new hoards as they are
discovered. The British Museum’s Department of Coins and Medals works
closely with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and many single finds as
well as newly found hoards come to the museum for both identification
New discoveries regularly unearthed from the ground continually
change the way we think about the history of Britain. These new ideas
will be presented in the gallery. However, the gallery will have
As galley curator Catherine Eagleton explains: “For me, the
history of money is a way to look at the history of the world. This
new permanent display at the British Museum is exciting and timely
because it looks at money and the ways that people use it, and how
that has changed over the last 4,500 years, as well as how it might
change in the future.”
As in the past, visitors are able to handle objects, with
assistance from volunteers in the British Museum’s Hands On program.
Guided tours of the new gallery will be available as part of the
Eye-openers program. From autumn 2012, the British Museum will pilot a
new five-year educational program based in the gallery, working with
secondary schools and community groups.
For details of the activities and events held in connection with
the Citi Money Gallery, visit www.britishmuseum.org and
search for Citi Money Gallery. ■