Room 68

From prehistory
to the present day

Stories of money

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    A gold (and silver) standard

    Cities and empires traded without using coins for over 2,000 years. But when ancient Mediterranean kingdoms like Lydia (in modern Turkey) began issuing pieces of electrum (a mixture of gold and silver) like this one, of a consistent weight and purity, the idea quickly caught on. This is one of the earliest coins in the world, and today the change in our pockets is based on the same inspirational idea that brought it into being.

    Theme: the beginnings of coinage 

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    Money talks

    As well as having purchasing power, coins also have the power to send messages through the images or writing on them. Roman emperors, such as Nero, often used money as a way of presenting a particular image of themselves on coins that circulated throughout the empire’s many provinces.

    Theme: communicating through coins 

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    Sea change

    For thousands of years, cowrie shells were used as currency around the world, from China to Arabia and Africa. Their widespread use shows that people entrusted such objects a worth independent of their intrinsic value, enabling their daily trade.

    Theme: the beginnings of money 

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    Ways and means

    As well as being used as money, coins can symbolise spiritual well-being, fertility, or other sorts of wealth. In Buddhist cultures, offerings of money were thought to bring spiritual benefit to the donor. This vase and 66 bronze coins were part of a group of offerings dedicated to the Buddha by a man called Vagramarega, for the benefit of himself and his family.

    Theme: money in daily life 

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    Seeing is believing

    Islam became the dominant religion of the Middle East and North Africa from around the AD 650s. The Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik of the Islamic Empire is shown on his early coins as a powerful ruler. In AD 696–7, his coinage was reformed. His image was removed, replaced by Qur’anic inscriptions in Arabic. This became standard across the Islamic World for hundreds of years.

    Theme: money, religion and power 

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    Something of note

    This 14th century banknote has the grand name ‘Great Ming Circulating Treasure Certificate’. It was the Chinese who first printed a value on a piece of paper and persuaded everyone that it was worth what it said it was. The whole modern banking system of paper and credit is built on this one simple act of faith.

    Theme: signs of authority 

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    Just giving

    In medieval and Renaissance Europe, Christians supported the clergy, maintained churches and assisted the poor through the payment of tithes. They also made a wide range of voluntary donations and charitable provisions. This box is a rare survivor of a type that must once have been common at the entrance to a chapel or near an altar or devotional image.

    Theme: money, religion and ritual 

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    Trading places

    For centuries, people in West Africa traded the gold found there along the historic caravan routes across the Sahara. People in the Asante kingdom used gold dust measured with special weights and scales to make payments and pay taxes. By the 1400s, Portuguese traders reached the West African coast by sea, establishing trade links between Europe and West Africa.

    Theme: money, merchants and the world 

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    Taking stock

    A rapid increase in the amount of money in circulation, or a ‘bubble’, when prices increase dramatically, can lead to financial crisis. This medal marks the stoppage in 1720 of a French bank founded by Scottish economist John Law. Law overstated the assets of his Mississippi Company, causing a rush to buy shares. When shareholders demanded cash payment a run on the bank and financial chaos followed.

    Theme: currency in the modern world 

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    Change is

    In the early 1900s this British penny was defaced to promote the suffragette cause. This bold criminal act was one of many that catapulted the movement for women’s right to vote into the political limelight. The penny stands for all those who fought for this monumental change.

    Theme: money and society 

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    Shell out for currency

    Currencies made from stone, feather, or shells, like this Kina shell from Papua New Guinea have performed an important social and cultural function, alongside their economic one in many parts of the world. Today, this heritage is a source of pride for some countries, and traditional currencies often feature in the design of their national coins and banknotes.

    Theme: tradition and innovation 

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    Ring the changes

    With infrastructure virtually destroyed in the devastating earthquake in 2010, the people of Haiti rapidly embraced mobile phone payments. When it comes to turning the phone into a wallet, the UK and much of Europe fall well behind countries like Haiti where wireless and mobile technologies are changing people’s lives.

    Theme: spending, saving and borrowing