4 min read

The British Museum celebrates coins, medals and all things numismatics

a photo of two sides of a round coin-like admission pass to Highgate Cemetery inscribed PURCHASERS TICKET OF ADMISSION SUBJECT TO THE REGULATIONS OF THE DIRECTORS NB NO ADMISSION ON SUNDAYS BEFORE TWO O'CLOCK.

Admission ticket for Highgate Cemetery, issued by London Cemetery Company. © the Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum is exploring the world of coins and medals by highlighting collections from the network of museums dedicated to numismatics

Private Alfred Henry Hook, awarded the Victoria Cross in 1879 for his actions at the Battle of Rourke’s Drift, saved eight Army hospital patients who were stranded after the building was set ablaze by attacking Zulus.

While many will be familiar with the British soldier from the portrayal of this in the 1964 film Zulu, starring Michael Cain, lesser known is his role at the British Museum dusting books, a position he gained following a letter of recommendation from his commanding officer, Lord Chelmsford.

Over a century later, Private Hook makes a return to the museum via this letter and his set of miniature medals lent by the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh. They will be on display alongside other rarely seen letters referring to him written John Chard and John Williams VC as part of Money and Medals: mapping the UK’s numismatic collections, the first of two British Museum exhibitions.

Celebrating the achievements of the Money and Medals Network, one of many subject specialist networks that provide help and advice to UK museums, the exhibition demonstrates the geographical spread of their work and the wonder of numismatics – the study or collection of coins, banknotes and medals – across the years.

a black and white photo of a man with a handlebar moustache and militray uniform with a victoria cross medal pinned on it

Albert Henry Hook, VC with his medals. Photo circa 1904, Public Domain

Wandering back through history from the 19th century to the 17th century, also highlighted is a collection of Roman coins and replica medals belonging to King Louis XIV lent by Armagh Robinson Library, the oldest library in Northern Ireland, which describes itself as a ‘healing place of the soul’.

A nod to Louis XIV’s reign, the medals were originally commissioned by the self-professed ‘Sun King’, who became king at the age of four, broke French tradition by ruling without a Prime Minister and built the Palace of Versailles.

Produced as part of a strategy of visual propaganda alongside sculptures and paintings which testified to his greatness, the medals were made cheaply in high quantities and depicted historical scenes such as the king winning battles and invading the Netherlands.

In addition to detailing historically rich events, the exhibition also features unusual objects such as tokens, tickets and coins used by magicians both as business cards and in tricks, proving that numismatics aren’t simply limited to coins.

a photo of a small seashell

Cowrie Shell, 1st millennium BCE © the Trustees of the British Museum

a photo of the old £1 note with the Queen's image on it

The old £1 note. Geometrical patterns. Design printed in green and brown. 1960-1977 © the Trustees of the British Museum

a photo of a the reverse of the design of the old £1 note

Britannia seated with shield at centre. Geometrical patterns. Design printed in green and brown. 1960-1977 © the Trustees of the British Museum

On loan from the Magic Circle Museum is an entertaining magic money machine, which seemingly transforms a roll of blank paper into banknotes, and a boxed set of coin tricks which must be displayed closed to ensure that no secrets are revealed.

The use of money in the performance of magic continues to fascinate today, along with the historic stories that can be unearthed through them, demonstrating that, although numismatic objects may be small, they are certainly not boring.

Further collections, described by the Museum as ‘particularly fine examples of coins from different periods’, include a framed set of replica Greek coins on loan from the Science Museum, a collection of Roman coins which were recently discovered at Merseyside country house, Knowsley Hall, and a varied range of numismatic objects borrowed from Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, representing local history collections and the Network’s presence in Scotland.

“The Money and Medals Network has been actively helping museums with numismatic collections since its creation in 2008,” says Henry Flynn, exhibition curator at the British Museum. “Activity has spread from England to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so it is now a truly national network.

“This exhibition celebrates this work as well as championing the subject of numismatics through the display of loan objects from six fantastically diverse collections. Numismatic objects may be small, but they can be used to tell big stories, which is something this exhibition aims to demonstrate.”

a bronze medal with a portrait of a man with Georgian era wig in profile

Obverse: Bronze medal depicting portrait bust of Archbishop Richard Robinson by John Kirk (1724–1776) after Isaac Gosset (1713–1799). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

a bronze medal with a depiction of a two storey Georgian era building on it

Reverse of a bronze medal depicting façade of Armagh Library by John Kirk (1724–1776) after Isaac Gosset (1713–1799). © The Trustees of the British Museum

a photo of a machine with roll of paper printing a dollar

Owen Supreme Magic Money Machine, a conjuring prop that seemingly transforms a blank roll of paper into banknotes. On loan from the Magic Circle Museum © the Magic Circle

a photo of a money cabinet with drawers in it

Coin cabinet containing silver shillings of Henry VIII © the Trustees of the British Museum

Money and Medals: mapping the UK’s numismatic collections, sponsored by the auctioneers Spink, is available to view free of charge in Room 69a at the British Museum, between Thursday March 22 and Sunday September 30 2018


British Museum

London, Greater London

Founded in 1753, the British Museum’s remarkable collection spans over two million years of human history. Enjoy a unique comparison of the treasures of world cultures under one roof, centred around the magnificent Great Court. World-famous objects such as the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon sculptures, and Egyptian mummies are visited by…

popular on Museum Crush

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *