Money, Medals and Museums in the Twenty-first Century
Most museums will have some form of numismatic collection. This might be Roman coins in an archaeology collection, tokens in social history or medals in military museums. However, numismatic collections are relatively seldom utilised. Cabinets of coins, medals and tokens sit unused in a variety of stores. There are reasons behind this. The antiquarian nature of collections, with large numbers of coins from areas remote in space and time from the modern museums, present problems. Similarly, the challenges of classification (is it sub-class 10a or 10b?) have put many off numismatics. Finally, the inherent challenge of displaying objects that are small and round must be acknowledged, in addition to the fact that money is something so everyday that we seldom stop to think about it.
It is a pity that numismatic collections are not utilised more widely. In the brief time that I have been based in York I have seen some fantastic things in collections within the region. Craven have an excellent Roman hoard, Sheffield an incredible array of industrial tokens/medals while York can boast the rather fabulous Vale of York Viking hoard. When I have been out and about visiting museums I like to say that every numismatic collection has something of interest, it is just a matter of finding out what it is and how to make the most of it.
An awareness of the potential of numismatics can be seen with some major museums devoting whole galleries to its display. Refurbishments of the BM, Ashmoleon and Manchester Museums have all devoted large spaces to Money. Closer to home, we have found in York that numismatics can work well in a number of contexts. We have material integrated into a range of exhibitions (The head of Constantine alongside his coins) but numismatics also stands on its own as can be seen in a ‘travel money’ display. It pops up in our Richard III handling sessions and even in our volcanoes display. Our work with WW1 medals has proved to be one of the most rewarding volunteer projects.
A realisation that there is enormous potential in numismatic collections is one of the reasons for YMT’s appointment of a Curator of Numismatics. My role is to provide advice, support and help to Museums within the region. If you fall under the remit of MDY then I am here to help. I am planning to host regular training on a range of topics, can provide specific advice – on identification, documentation, display, handling, interpretation or whatever you can think of! – if desired and am currently working on trying to ‘map’ the numismatic collections of the region. This mapping will feed into a national scheme which aims to quantify the scale and type of numismatic collections across the whole country. This will allow for more effective planning of training and the connection of collections with local specialists/volunteers.
In sum, money and medals have huge potential within a Museum environment. Handled appropriately and with a little imagination there are few things that they can’t be utilised for. In my blog, I’m happy to field queries about all things numismatic so please use it as an opportunity to take a look in that dusty cabinet and see what you have!
Andrew Woods, Curator of Numismatics, York Museums Trust
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