How to make a mint

Victoria Neumark finds the British Museum's exhibition on the history of money offers some rich rewards

Money makes the world go round, as the song has it. The British Mus-eum's glittering new gallery dedicated to the history of money certainly puts a refreshing spin on a subject of abiding interest to our nation of lottery gamblers, small investors, and credit card customers. In a compact, easily accessible space, the exhibition covers the production and use of money from earliest times to the present.

The first coins were probably produced by the Zhou kings in China during the 7th century BC. These were cast in bronze in the shape of hoes, knives or cowrie shells, suggesting those objects had been earlier, less standardised forms of exchange. Appropriately, the gallery has been funded by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (incorporating the Midland Bank), from whose archives some of the material has been drawn.

From the earliest currency - shells, large stones and chunks of metal - to the latest cashless transactions, the gallery encompasses the developments of the past 5,000 years, captioning them with imponderables such as "Why do we need money?" The exhibition is highly informative, breaking down the story of money into the development of form and function over time. In the display on early money systems, the rich resources of the museum's collections have been divided into sections which show how exchange values became standardised in early marketplaces, how money systems spread (throughout the Roman Empire, for instance), how raw materials were used (usually metals, but also stones and shells) and the ways in which authority - be it Caesar's head, or Queen Elizabeth's - has been used to prevent counterfeiting and to control the money supply.

Displays of coins are broken up by photographs and exhibits on metallurgical processes under the heading "Metal and money supplies", detailing the most commonly used metals - the fairy-tale trio of gold, silver and copper.

The concept of money as treasure is beautifully encapsulated in one of the central display cases showing a sparkly hoard from the Chancery Court case of Jones v Lloyd in 1700. This pile of coins, mostly silver with the odd blaze of gold, spills out from leather purses as if only just flung there. This 300-year-old financial wrangle has still to be resolved.

More practically, cases that hold huge machines lent by the Royal Mint for milling and stamping coins, and all the paraphernalia of the engravers' tools give the exhibition a reassuring emphasis on the means of production. These gleaming industrial accoutrem-ents of money-making are neatly counterpointed by modern adding machines, calculators and credit cards so rapidly displacing the kind of social interactions of which the shiny Art Deco cash register reminds us.

According to Andrew Burnett, keeper of coins and medals at the British Museum, it was not until Britain, along with the rest of the Western world, went off the gold standard permanently between the two world wars (having had to abandon it temporarily to pay for munitions) that modern money markets, which tend to favour rarefied degrees of speculation, came to replace the solid equivalences of money for goods and services.

Tracing the production of money through the ages provides more than a mere historical record of the political information captured on the coins themselves, it also reflects changes in the world's economy and trading systems.

Banknotes, of which the public was severely suspicious when they were introduced to Europe in the late 17th century, typify this kind of historical issue, and foreign banknotes provide fascinating vign-ettes of life under regimes as diverse as communist China and the former Yugoslavia. Our own splendidly old-fashioned, white crackly bits of paper with the stern black writing, make a particularly good show.

The exhibition finishes with a cross-cultural look at such differing means of exchange as the stone beads used in New Caledonia, the massive stone rings carted about in Micronesia and raffia cloth money from the Congo. Changing images on currency from such areas as the former Soviet Union continue to reflect political and social upheaval, just as the massive coins from the empire of Charlemagne still resonate with the pomp of the Middle Ages. These "money messages", as the gallery terms them, are blatant compared to the more subtle and ambiguous messages from artefacts such as a pink plastic pig money box, a great treasure chest bound in iron bars, or high-value presentation coins that cannot actually be spent.

The abuse of money is not limited to forgery and hoarding, nor is its use confined to barter. This gallery will be essential visiting for anyone attempting to understand and teach this complex subject.

The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1 3DG. For educational visits, ring 0171 323 8510. Support and materials: The Story of Money by J Orna-Ornstein is published by BMP at Pounds 4.50 and is a lively look at the subject for 8 to 11-year-old children. A CD-Rom is due next year

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