World class coin collection shines at Ashmolean Museum

By Mark Sheerin | 04 November 2009
Some 15 gold coins on a black background

(Above) Selection from the Crondall hoard. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The £61m redevelopment at the Ashmolean Museum has made headlines this week, but another money-related story of no less interest can be found at the new building in Oxford.

The museum is also home to a raft of coins ranking among the ten most important monetary collections in the world, containing 300,000 monetary objects which, until now, had been tucked away in a remote vault which visitors dared not enter.

Silver coin with profile of Alexander the Great

Coin with portrait of Alexander. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

When the museum reopens this weekend many of the coins will have a dedicated gallery, where a bold caption on the wall proclaims money to be "the value of the past".

With displays from ancient Britain as well as India and the Middle East, plus Greek and Roman coinage, it is hoped that gallery seven will be a microcosm of the rest of the museum.

One bank of exhibits (no pun intended) explores money according to themes, grouping together bank notes, barter tokens, dollars and ducats under headings such as "Making money", "Using money" and "Money and power".

Gold coin with rudimentary drawing of face

Selection from the Crondall hoard. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Across the way, coins are collected by civilization. This reveals "the whole world in one wall", according to collection keeper Chris Howgego, a feat made possible by the smallness of said artefacts. "Taking the weakness of anything and then turning it into a strength is quite a cool thing," he enthuses.

Just one side of a plinth is enough to tell part one of the story of English coinage. The Crondall Hoard contains the first coins made on these shores after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Only a high security case allows the museum to show them for the first time.

The nearby Chalgrove Hoard features the celebrated Domitianus coin, which proves the existence of a lost Roman Emperor. It was found in a field near Oxford in 2003, while another local relic, the Oxford Crown, was struck at a royalist mint in the city for Charles I in 1644.

Silver coin depicting Charles I on horseback

Oxford Crown. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The fact such coins feature leaders and often dates is one reason they command a whole field of study. Now students of numismatics and interested members of the public will also be able to handle the objects in their own study and seminar rooms.

The Heberden Coin Room, as the collection is known, reaches much further into the new museum, since coins are showcased in 25 of the 35 permanent galleries.

Gold coin showing Indian king Chandragupta

Dinara of Chandragupta II. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

"As storytelling items, coins work very well because they contain iconography," says Project Curator David Berry, explaining why such small objects appeal to so many departments.

"It allows us to integrate a part of the collection in a way that is meaningful, not just for the sake of it."

By way of example, Berry highlights a coin which depicts Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. The museum is able to display it beside a sword formerly presented to the king in recognition of his role as defender of the Catholic Faith.

Gold medal with three-quarter profile of Henry VIII

Medal of Henry VIII. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Symbolism aside, money has played a deeply functional role in shaping the new layout of the Ashmolean. New display strategy Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time highlights the connections and, crucially, the circulations between East and West.

Central galleries which focus on trade in the Mediterranean and The Silk Road appear to demonstrate that globalisation is no recent fad. Money, it seems, really does make the world go round, so it really is good news that so much of the precious stuff has been raised to rebuild a regional museum, albeit the oldest in Britain.

But rest assured that the best things in life, such as visiting the Ashmolean, will still be free.

The Ashmolean Museum opens on November 7 2009. Admission free, visit the museum website for more details.

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