Eight year old Joe Percy, a Fabulous Finder, gets the lowdown on the Ashmolean's vast coin collection.
24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Journalist Zoe Adjonyoh headed to the Ashmolean Museum on Saturday April 30 2005.
Anyone who visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford on Fabulous Finds Day would have been greeted by the warming vision of Dr Nicholas Mayhew, keeper of the Heberden Coin Room, enthusiastically demonstrating to children how to ‘strike’ coins Middle Ages style.
Basking in the beautiful spring sunshine and smiling faces of eager participants, mainly children, there was something of a Father Christmas air about the man responsible for some of the most precious coins on public display in England.
One particularly enthralled child, Jessica Stubbs, aged six, of Banbury whose real passion was fossils and shells, fought through her shyness to declare: “I don’t mind...but I don’t want to bang it too hard!”
Jessica needn’t have worried as trusty keeper of smiles and sunshine for the day, Dr Mayhew, already had the health and safety concerns in hand.
The UK's oldest public museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford.
The glee of being given the shiny silver double-sided coin bearing William the Conqueror’s head, the result of the ‘striking’ process, was too much to contain as Jessica and her sister ran excitedly into the museum’s main entrance.
Two other Fab Finds Day visitors, William and Olivia Passey aged eight and six respectively, struck coins and participated in the medal making process and other activities. Young William then wasted no time in examining the rare objects on display for people to see and examine, who hadn’t brought any ‘finds’ of their own.
As he held a beautiful 500 BC Greek hand-painted pot, an expert informed William it was 2,500 years old. His mature and response was: “That was obviously a time when things were made to last”, much to the amusement of everyone around.
Of the day overall, a smiley, talkative and enthusiastic William said: “This is really interesting because you get to know about how people lived in the old days, what hygiene was like and how the world was then.”
Education Officer, Johanna Rice, added: “We want people to realise they’re not going to be tested on what they’ve seen or get their heads bitten off for asking questions.”
The Ashmolean knows all about rare coins - this one turned up last year and bears the face of Domitianus, the 'lost' Roman Emperor. © Zoe Adjonyoh/ 24 Hour Museum.
It’s a fair bet that anyone who attended on the day will be back again soon. Even those who came in just as a visit to the museum, unaware of the Fabulous Finds Day event, were impressed.
The day inspired many volunteers to turn out including Marina Karystinou who was volunteering with the activities for children. They included producing a newspaper report of the day, going on a hunt for objects scattered around the museum and the more simple activity of drawing and colouring in.
Marina commented: “There have been lots of activities to do but the children have been mostly interested in making their own replica medals with foil and string …it’s important to make them feel good about being in the museum or making it feel relevant to them.”
It wasn’t just the kids that had all the fun though, Mim Umney-Gray of Dorchester on Thames, travelled across to Oxford to have a myriad of objects examined by the experts.
In amongst the finds were some bits of Roman pottery and Victorian dressing buttons found in her back garden. Also a knife blade found by her son, sticking out of the mud, while walking along an embankment in Battersea, London.
Ashmolean Museum staff sift through the Fabulous Finds.
Portable Antiquities Scheme finds liaison officer Ros Tyrrell, who was measuring, weighing and photographing Mim’s objects said: “It’s not that unusual for Dorchester on Thames as it was an old Roman Settlement site, but the blade is difficult to date”. Mim commented: “It was probably a murder weapon…that’s half the fun, you never know what these objects you find relate to and how they were used.”
Perhaps the most interesting find of the day was brought in by veteran digger Len Rees, 76 from Blackthorn, Bicester. A passion for history and unearthing hidden treasures has kept Len so busy he has “a whole room full of finds at home” and two cases have been dedicated to Len’s finds in the Coin Room of the Ashmolean.
On April 30 he brought in a Gold Guinea quarter penny of George III when he was King of America in 1762 and a six pence piece of Elizabeth I, both found south of Bicester just a week before.
Of Len’s finds, Julian Baker, finds advisor said: “The gold coin is of some interest as gold coins are not that readily found and the site they were found at is well known as being a medieval settlement.”
Jo Rice, Education officer at the Ashmolean added: “Making museums more welcoming, accessible and friendly to as many people as possible is what today is all about… the perceptions of museum is that they are elitist – we have worked extra hard to get more people in but there’s still much more work to do.”
Zoe Adjonyoh is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.