Thursday, January 17, 2013


Words by Matt Bolton

The world’s focus will turn to London this summer with the arrival of the Olympics – yet even in a place as popular as this, there are still hidden treasures to be found. We find out where by going behind the scenes with six locals who help to keep the capital running.

Head For History

Philip Attwood, curator the British Museum

FORGET Tony Robinson – if a hoard of Roman coins drops up in the back garden, it’s Philip Attwood you want to call. He is the fabulously titled Keeper of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, and the man on whose desk most glittering new archaeological finds end up. He’s been working at the British museum for 32 years, and walking through the jaw-dropping atrium, latticed with metal and glass, it’s not difficult to understand why he says he never wants to leave.

‘Sometimes you have to take a step back and remember where you are. I can be on my way to a meeting and suddenly realize I’m next to an exhibit that I spent a year studying at university – like this, the Standard of Ur, ‘he enthuses, gesturing to a 4,500-year-old mosaic depicting scenes of war in ancient Sumer (modern Iraq). ‘The power of this object is extraordinary. Think of who else has looked at it in different times, and I’m just walking past it for a meeting!’

With more than seven million objects in the collection, it’s hard to know where to start, but Philip is as good a guide as you’ll get. His knowledge of small circular things made out of metal stretches all the way from the Fishpool Hoard of 1,2237 gold coins dating from the War of the Roses (the largest found in the UK and with a face value of £400 (US$640), equal to £300,000 (US$480,000) in today’s money, to an intricate gold coin cast for Queen Mary I in 1555, which would set you back around £270,00 (US$435,000) if it ever came up for sale. Being able to spot a forgery is a crucial part of the job – although most fakes that do crop up are contemporary to the originals, rather than modern-day cheats.

Philip’s latest project has been to select the design for London Olympic and Paralympic medals. ‘The pattern of the Paralympic medal is taken from the drapery worn by the statue of Nike, which stood at Olympia in ancient Greece. We own a cast of the statue, although it’s currently in our store room, which is, weirdly enough,in the London version of Olympia.’

Curators develop a possessive, almost familial, relationship with their collections. ‘Most of us don’t think about the monetary value of an object, even when it’s worth millions,’ says Philip. ‘It’s the emotional response that’s important, the connection with other individuals over time and space. An object’s meaning can change, but there’s often continuity, too – a basic idea which sustains. It’s a real privilege to have that experience every day.’ 

British Museum, Great Russel St, WC1B;; More Unmissable London Museum…Horniman Museum, a unique collection of anthropological artefacts and musical instruments (100 London Rd, SE23; Sir John Soane’s Museum, this collection of antiquities demonstrates the breadth of the architect’s influences (13 Loncoln’s Inn flds, WC2A;

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