The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 24, June 17, 2007, Article 15


Now where was I?  Last week I had to cut my diary short following
my long-winded account of my visit to the London Coin Fair on 9 June.
After leaving the show I traipsed over to the British Museum.  Since
Real Men don't ask for directions I declined to purchase a map (but
did drop a quid in the donation box).  Off I went to explore the

I was quite pleased with what I found.  The exhibits were marvelous,
and not just for the quality of the items displayed, but for the
layout, arrangement, description, lighting, floorplan - everything.
It's what one would expect of the British Museum, and I wasn't
disappointed.  I guess they've learned a few things about running
a museum since their founding in 1753.

Knowing that any museum's public exhibit represents only the tip of
their holdings iceberg, I couldn't help but wonder about all the
treasures I WASN'T seeing.  A stroll thru the galleries was a walk
through the eons of human existence; an Easter Island statue, Egyptian
mummies galore, ancient carvings, mosaics and statues, and coins, too.

The inclusion of coins in many of the exhibits warmed my numismatist's
heart.  One of the first coin exhibits I encountered was a group from
ancient Sri Lanka, reminding me of E-Sylum contributor Kavan Ratnatunga.
I didn't take many notes on the coins I saw that day, for if I did I'd
have ended up writing a book.  Actually, I had that book in my backpack,
the 1922 Guide to the Department of Coins and Medals in the British
Museum that I'd bought earlier at the coin fair.  To my coin-centric
eye, it was almost as if the coin department had been greatly expanded
with cultural artifacts brought in to augment the coins.

Eventually I stumbled into the actual coin department and greatly
enjoyed reviewing the displays.  Again, I took few notes because like
a kid in a candy store, I couldn't decide where to start.  A couple
items that drew my eye weren't coins themselves, but were nevertheless
very interesting.

One was an actual reducing machine made in France.  "The Royal Mint
acquired this reducing machine from Panisset of Paris in 1824 for the
use of Mint Engraver William Wyon."  The exhibit case also included a
plaster, rubber mould, and electrotype masters for the 1983 one-pound
coin by Eric Sewell, and a plaster of Mary Gillick's 1952 portrait
of Elizabeth II.

Another unusual item stood almost unnoticed near the door to the
gallery.  Inscribed before 120 BC, the tall stone slab was an honorific
decree allowing the town of Sestos to be able to issue its own coinage.

Wandering through the galleries I turned a corner and was stunned to
come face-to-face with another stone slab I'd forgotten the British
Museum had - The Rosetta Stone.  We all read about the Rosetta Stone
in school (at least I did), but it's only now as an adult that I can
really understand its significance.  As a numismatic bibliophile,
imagine if all the books in your library were printed in some strange
language you didn't understand.  You could see the pictures, but the
captions and text were incomprehensible.  Then suddenly, after years
of frustration a dictionary appears.  Now you can really begin to read
and understand what's been under your nose for so long.  That's the
Rosetta Stone - the key that unlocked ancient mysteries of
hieroglyphic writing.

A visit to the British Museum wouldn't be complete without seeing the
Elgin Marbles, so soon I was in an immense gallery replicating the
size and shape of the interior of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in
Athens.  Around the walls was an eye-level remounting of the famous
carvings from the ancient landmark damaged by time and a terrible
explosion in 1687.

The numismatic connection here?  For me it was ancient art as an
inspiration for both ancient and modern coinage.  The great sculptors
like Augustus Saint-Gaudens all studied ancient art and architecture.
A look at the figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon
with all her flowing robes immediately brought to mind Saint-Gaudens'
numismatic masterpiece, the obverse of the U.S. twenty dollar gold
piece which debuted in 1907 (see the link below).

Having been on my feet all day I was ready for a break, but not before
I visited the library exhibit Hadrien Rambach had told me about.
Still mapless, I wandered around the ground floor sniffing for books
like a biblio-bloodhound.  I was looking for the King's Library.

Formed by King George III (1760-1820) and originally housed at
Buckingham Palace, it was given to the nation in 1823 by his son
King George IV.  The breathtaking room for the King's Library was
built between 1823 and 1827, and was the first part constructed for
the current British Museum building.   In 1998 the books were transferred
to a new home in the new British Library building, and the library
room was restored in time to celebrate the British Museum's 250th

Currently the room hosts an impressive permanent exhibit on The
Enlightenment, a story of the museum and its early collections.
The bookshelves are now filled with artifacts collected early in
the museum's history, but there's still room for books -
leather-bound volumes from the House of Commons Library reside
here, too.

One freestanding exhibit case naturally caught my eye.  From the text:
"The books from the King's Library shown here are devoted to numismatics
- the study of coins and medals.  During the eighteenth century, one
of the signs of a gentleman was his library, which often included
ancient artefacts such as the coins and medals in this case.  They
were considered essential tools of historical research and were
interpreted mostly in the light of knowledge from ancient texts.
Books and coins were therefore intimately linked."

I couldn't agree more, and I'm sure most of our readers would, too.
It was quite pleasing to see all of the exhibits and know that
numismatics and numismatic literature are being exposed to visitors
to The British Museum.  I headed outside to rest on a bench and
call my family before heading back to my hotel.

For more information on The Rosetta Stone, see: The Rosetta Stone

To view an image of the figure of Iris from the Parthenon, see: 
Image pf Iris from the Parthenon

For more information on The King's Library, see:
More Info

For more information on Apsley House, see: Apsley House

  Wayne Homren, Editor

Google Web
The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization 
promoting numismatic literature. See our web site at

To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor 
at this address:

To subscribe go to:
Copyright © 2005 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society.



Copyright © 1998 - 2020 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS)
All Rights Reserved.

NBS Home Page
Contact the NBS webmaster