diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 21, 2008

Designing Change
British Museum (Room 69a) until 1 March 2009

Just what's needed at a time of economic depression - a free exhibition about small change.

Britain's new coinage

You must have found some of these shiny new coins in your pocket by now, assuming you still buy things using cash and haven't completely defected to the plastic side. You might have wondered what they were, or even tried handing them back to the shopkeeper thinking they were foreign. I've not quite collected the full set yet, I'm still missing the 50p, and then I'll be able to twiddle around with the coins as the designer intended. Like this.

our new coinsHere's Matt Dent's grand coinage concept, enlarged to wall-mounted size with a notice underneath saying "Please touch". This tactile model shows precisely how the new bronze and silver coins were carved out from the historic Royal Arms. The 50p at the pointy bottom of the shield, the tiny fivepence crammed into the middle, and the big ten and two in the top corners. It seems this symmetrical arrangement wasn't quite Matt's original plan. The exhibition also contains his first paper draft, with six circular holes cut out to deliberately highlight the most interesting parts of the Arms. But no, much better to fit the coins closer together and to see what random images they contain. Matt moved over to his Mac to tweak 25 slightly different arrangements, again displayed here, before submitting just one to the Royal Mint Advisory Committee. Success.

plaster 20pThere are many stages from drawing board to pocket. A large plaster model is created, about a foot across, so that the intricacies of the design can be finalised. Here's the 20p version, featuring the rear end of a lion passant. This is then shrunk down to a real-size die stamp, shiny and perfect in every way, and the coin-to-be is slammed hard between the logo and the latest version of the Queen's head. It's all done with machines, millions of times, somewhere in South Wales, before being shipped out to banks and shops and businesses. And that's how Matt's most original concept went forward to grace the nation's purses and wallets for the foreseeable future. No numerals on the tails face, though, so visiting tourists had better learn our language fast.

2pAlso on show at the exhibition are the designs from the last time our coinage was updated, way back in 1971 for decimalisation. The designer was Christopher Ironside and he had to go through the process once in secret and then again in a public competition. Christopher put forward four different sets of linked designs, each featuring a selection of iconic images, but none of them quite the combination we see today. A futuristic gyroscope on the 2p (er, no thanks). A thistle on the 5p (yes, fine). A sailing ship on the 1p (too old school) and Britannia on a circular 20p (doubly wrong). All the old favourites are there somewhere, though, lovingly sketched on thin paper as designers had to in the 60s before computers made life simple.

It's not a big exhibition, little more than a handful of display cases in a tiny cell-like chamber. You'd be hard pushed to find it if you didn't know it was there, up on the third floor beyond a room full of Greek and Roman relics. Everybody I saw stumbling upon it yesterday appeared to be a foreign visitor, and all of them quickly deduced that this was a very British very modern exhibition and disappeared back out to their favoured classical antiquities pretty sharpish. But you might find it more fascinating, especially if you're interested in the evolution of good design, or if you just want to know where the art gallery in your pocket originated.

Many thanks to Martin, who's post yesterday first alerted me to Designing Change's existence. His report also contains far more photos than mine, so do take a look if the subject's of interest. But, sigh, the exhibition has already been running for three months and not a whisper of it had come my way before. Either I'm slipping or the British Museum's publicity department is obsessed solely by Babylon and statues. You have just over two more months to take a look yourself.

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