Exhibiting Coins as Economic Artefacts: Curating Historical Interpretation in Faith and Fortune: Visualizing the Divine on Byzantine and Early Islamic Coinage (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, November 2013-January 2015)

By Darley, Rebecca; Reynolds, Daniel | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Exhibiting Coins as Economic Artefacts: Curating Historical Interpretation in Faith and Fortune: Visualizing the Divine on Byzantine and Early Islamic Coinage (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, November 2013-January 2015)


Darley, Rebecca, Reynolds, Daniel, Journal of Art Historiography


Introduction

The economics of research and the nature of academic output are two of the most significant issues facing the modern British academy, underpinning debates about open access publication and tuition fees and driving initiatives such as the Research Assessment Exercise/Research Excellence Framework (RAE/REF) and the development of publisher-services such as Altmetrics.1 The heritage sector is likewise under pressure to justify its increasingly limited share of public funding.2 The following article uses the case study of an exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, designed in collaboration with the University of Birmingham Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies (CBOMGS), to examine new ways of displaying an artefact type with a traditionally esoteric reputation: coins. In so doing it examines the interplay between research and exhibition, suggesting the utility of research collections for the promotion of original approaches to material and innovative presentation to a wider public.3

A brief introduction to the historical period addressed by the exhibition and the Barber Institute coin collection provide context for three interpretative sections examining space, text and time as elements simultaneously of exhibition design and frameworks for analysing the material on display. Exhibition represents, like any other form of academic output, a dialectic mechanism for approaching, interpreting and presenting historical evidence.4 The constraints it imposes and the opportunities it presents, and thus the interpretations it may produce, are distinct from those of, for example, academic publication. The questions which underpin analysis of any source, however, may be shared across many different media of investigation and presentation. This article examines how focussing on the economic role of coins, not to the exclusion of their political or visual dimensions, but as a foundation for examining these elements, structured this exhibition and generated further research.

Late Antiquity c. 498-750

Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage primarily exhibited coins minted between A.D. 498 and 750, and drawn entirely from the Barber Institute collection. The coins were almost all minted in the east Mediterranean and Near East and bear witness to a time of dramatic social, political and economic change. Briefly, the Roman Empire, having from the third century split into two increasingly autonomous eastern and western halves, fully separated. The western half collapsed as an imperial system and came to be ruled by numerous competing powers, while the eastern half continued to operate as a political entity until 1453, a state usually termed by historians the Byzantine Empire. This process occurred parallel to the gradual Christianisation of both halves of the Roman Empire, officially as a state religion from the fourth century. The Byzantine Empire was, therefore, a Christian state built on Roman systems of government, in which the emperor ruled as Christ's viceroy on Earth.5

From the third century Rome's greatest threat on its eastern front was the Sasanian Persian Empire, a state which was itself centred upon a ruler by divine right, the Shah-an-shah, or King of Kings, endorsed by the dualist state religion, usually termed Zoroastrianism.6 Far less is known about this state than the Byzantine Empire, because it left fewer written records and archaeological excavation in its heartlands, the modern states of Iran and Iraq has been difficult in recent decades.7 It was nevertheless, a powerful state with a formidable army and a regular silver currency which spread as far as China in trade for silk, spices and eastern goods.8 The relationship between the Sasanian and Byzantine Empires could be cordial but was always tense and at times, most particularly in the sixth and early seventh century, erupted into drawn-out and bloody wars. …

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Exhibiting Coins as Economic Artefacts: Curating Historical Interpretation in Faith and Fortune: Visualizing the Divine on Byzantine and Early Islamic Coinage (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, November 2013-January 2015)
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