Show me the money

If it were not for a gilt sign that reads “Money Gallery”, you might not immediately guess the theme of one of the newly renovated rooms at the British Museum. Gone are the interminable rows of coins: a refurbishment of the gallery has inspired a rethink on how to present one of the world’s biggest numismatic collections – and how to use money to tell the story of the world’s civilisations.

The Citi Money Gallery tells big stories with small objects. The display encompasses more than 1,000 exhibits, highlights of a pre-eminent collection of more than a million items spanning 5,000 years. Thematic groupings include explorations of the social and cultural significance of money through the millennia, its ritual and religious uses.

Among the earliest coins are those from Lydia – an ancient state within modern-day Turkey – made around 650BC from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. One is about the size of a thumbnail, ragged-edged and decorated with a lion’s head. Others are even smaller, the size of flattened coffee-beans and irregular in design, but they glisten as brightly as they did when they were first struck. Blown-up photographs next to the exhibits show the minute detail.

From a similar period is Chinese “spade money”, whose shape reflects the importance of agriculture in the Warring States period, c400BC. The pieces resemble miniature tools – such as spades and knives – made from cast bronze, about twice the size of modern credit cards, with pointed edges not ideal for trouser pockets or purses. Usually part of a barter system, some were also used in burial rituals. There are also examples of Chinese jade tablet-money from up to 5,000 years ago, carved with decorations of animals.

A fake Roman coin

Coins from ancient Egypt are also crude in outline – apparently shapeless silver scraps of bullion dating from 1352BC-1336BC. Yet it was their weight that counted within a civilisation with a sophisticated accounting system. The display is brought to life with an painting showing a man using a weight shaped like a bull’s head to weigh gold rings.

The problem of forgery is as old as money itself. A display case shows 100 fake Roman coins alongside 100 fake £1 coins that were taken out of circulation in 2011. The Royal Mint estimates that around one out of every 35 £1 coins in circulation today is counterfeit. Other coins are worthless but have a story to tell, such as the 1903 penny illegally stamped with the suffragette slogan “votes for women” in order to circulate the message.

A 1903 penny stamped with the suffragette slogan

Modern coins, perhaps because they are minted so perfectly, lack the romance of more ancient pieces. The new gallery can be refreshed, however, with new acquisitions – almost two a penny, it seems, because of the number of metal detectorists who regularly unearth hoards of coins. The exhibits also address recent developments showing, for instance, how Haiti has led the way since its banking infrastructure was almost completely destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.

Compared with the British Museum’s other treasures – Egyptian mummies, the Parthenon Marbles and other spectacular exhibits – coins are always going to be poor cousins, whatever their shapes and designs. But walking through this exhibition you are struck by the human element to these seemingly humble objects – the thought of their intimate and tactile significance in the daily lives of our ancestors, in whatever culture.

Sponsored by Citi

Opens June 25

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