Tag Archives: exhibitions

Standards for Empire: The Power of Coinage in the Met’s Ancient China Exhibition


Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.–A.D. 220) on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (April 3–July 16, 2017) shows how art was pivotal in the formation of a Chinese identity. Too small to fully appreciate without holding, coins often go unnoticed in major exhibitions. They remain reminders of monetized economies, the flow of goods, and regnal shifts. In addition to commissioning China’s Great Wall, the Qin ruler, Ying Zheng (r. 247–220 BC), unified the empire’s monetary system increasing the circulation of copper coinage. He also introduced standards of universal weights and measures. Such policies made money a cosmopolitan language of exchange across vast territories.

Water clock excavated from burial pit no.4 of Tomb no. 8 at the burial site of the Zhang Family, Fengxiyuan, Xi’an, Shaanxi, 2009. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

An impulse to standardize Chinese knowledge is a phenomenon apparent through several non-monetary objects showcased in the exhibition. A bronze waterclock from the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9) embodies this characteristic. A piece of wood or bamboo was likely fed through a small hole in the lid of this container. As water drained out of a tube at its bottom at a steady rate, the wood would sink and mark time. It was the norm for these clocks to be kept in all Qin and Han administrative offices. This simple technological solution brings to mind a number of waterclocks throughout art history. On the opposite side in the spectrum of simplicity, the design for a waterclock of al-Jazari in twelfth-century northeastern Syria/Iraq, a manuscript of which is in the Met’s Islamic holdings, would be a much more fanciful and multipurpose innovation.

“Design for the Water Clock of the Peacocks”, from the Kitab fi ma’rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices) by Badi’ al-Zaman b. al Razzaz al-Jazari. MMA 55.121.15. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition also features gold ingots (metal exchanged for its value) in the shape of horse-hooves of the Western Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 9). These objects show how certain standards change with the reigns of new emperors. Because of an auspicious vision, the Han Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC) transformed the shape of gold ingots from the hooves of qilins (mythical creatures) to horses. A bronze mold for half-ounce coins (banliang) from the Qin or early Han dynasty, ten bronze half-ounce Qin banliangs, and five Han dynasty imitations of Ancient Persian (Parthian) coins are other examples.

Three hoof-shaped ingots excavated from the tomb of Marquis Haihun in Nanchang, Jiangxi, 2015. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Instead of directly showing coins, some of the most iconographically complex objects in the exhibition imply the importance of a monetary economy. The lids of two bronze cowry containers are comprised of sculpted figures, one even displaying a sacrifice scene.

Cowry container with scene of sacrifice excavated from Tomb no. 69 at Lijiashan, Jiangchuan, Yunnan, 1992, lent by Lijiashan Museum of Bronzes. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to the exhibition curators, cowry containers such as these could have been adapted from bronze drums. In ancient times, cowry shells were utilized as currency, particularly in coastal regions, before copper became more accessible. The American Numismatic Society’s collection features cowry that are attributed to China, Africa, and India, and perhaps these would be the kind of objects that would fill these sumptuous containers.

Bone cowrie, China, 500–221 BC. ANS 1937.179.4191.
Bone cowry, China, 500–221 BC. ANS 1937.179.4191.

One of the most elegant objects in the show is known as a “money tree” (qian shu) or “money-shaking tree” (yao qian shu). The exhibition label reports that approximately 200 of these are known and they were functioned as funerary goods. The example in the exhibition made of bronze is attributed to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–200). From afar, the six layers of branches of the tree look highly ornamented, yet coming close one notices that the leaves of the tree are formed of bronze square-hole coins. How were these money trees produced? Did the same artisans responsible for minting money cast them?

“Money tree” excavated from Shixiangcun, Wanfuxiang, Guanghan city, Sichuan, 1983, lent by Guanghan Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While numismatic evidence may pose many difficulties in museum exhibitions—their scale, legibility, and overall impact on a viewer—being a few, Age of Empires demonstrates how coins were inherent to the process of imperial standardization. Highly ornamented and much larger scale objects potentially imply the power of numismatics.

Hair in the Classical World

Bellarmarine-HairThe  Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University has just opened a fascinating new exhibition with the theme of “Hair in the Classical World.” On display in the gallery are an assortment of objects and images from the Bronze Age through late Antiquity, including a diverse array of sculptures and, of course, coins. As the introduction to the exhibition notes, hair is particularly “resonant of cultural identity,” and the way that it was styled and sported in antiquity served a variety of different purposes. Among other things, hairstyles signified social position, served as a medium of cultural exchange, and played an important role in various rituals and rites of passage.


One of the most compelling aspects of the exhibition is its manifest interdisciplinarity. Any consideration of hairstyles must necessarily draw upon a wide range of material, historical, and visual sources, and the interpretation effectively mixes insights from archaeology, art history, and cultural studies. As everything from the intricate hair pins on display to the careful texturing and arrangement of hair on the statuary suggests, hairstyles were an important means of self and artistic expression in the classical world.

Limestone bust, Cyprus, mid-5th century BCE The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Limestone head, Cyprus, mid-5th century BCE
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A significant inspiration for the exhibition was the Caryatid Hairstyling  Project, which employed a professional hairstylist and student models in an attempt to replicate the elaborate hairstyles on the famed marbles of the Erechtheion. A short film of that project is on view as part of the exhibition. While all of this might give the impression that the focus is exclusively on women, there is also material reflecting on men’s hairstyles, which at times were as elaborate as those that adorned women. Braids were one style common to boys and girls in ancient Greece. Grown out along the central part, the braid was ritually cut and dedicated to the goddess Artemis when entering adulthood.

The reason we are writing this up here is of course because coins feature prominently in the exhibition. The curators liken coins to the social media of today insomuch they were a medium through which images of hairstyles circulated and reached a wide audience.

Denarius of Augustus, ANS 1957.172.1500 | Tetradrachm of Leontini, ANS 1997.9.121
Denarius of Augustus, ANS 1957.172.1500 | Tetradrachm of Leontini, ANS 1997.9.121

The American Numismatic Society has ten coins on loan to the Bellarmine Museum for the exhibition, including a silver decadrachm from Syracuse, a denarius of Julia Domna and a gold aureus of Faustina the Younger. Coins were a form of propaganda and a way to project power in the classical world, and the variety of hairstyles captured in the portraits reflect the politics and fashion of their age. Perhaps the pièce de résistance  in terms of the coinage is a silver decadrachm that features a portrait of the water nymph Arethusa wreathed by swimming dolphins. It was minted in Syracuse between 405 and 400 BCE, when the city-state was ruled by the tyrant Dionysius. In an attempt to buttress his reputation and power, he engaged the best engravers available to produce some of the finest coinage anywhere in the Greek world.

ANS, 1964.79.21

“Hair in the Classical World” will be on view through December 18, 2015, and the Bellarmine Museum is free and open to the public (see here for hours and directions). It should also be noted that the museum will also be hosting a scholarly symposium on the subject on the afternoon of November 6. Speakers include Dr. David Konstan from New York University, author of Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea (2015) and Janet Stephens, a Baltimore-based hairdresser and amateur forensic archaeologist. To pre-register for the symposium and to see more information about other public programs connected to the exhibition, head here.

Matthew Wittmann

Drachmas, Doubloons, and Dollars

This video featured in the American Numismatic Society’s exhibition “Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money,” which ran at the New York Federal Reserve from 2002 to 2012.

Money makes the world go round. This exhibition showed the different shapes of money: coins, cowrie shells, salt, tokens, gold, paper money, credit cards and many more. Money is first and foremost a way to store wealth and make payments. It makes trade easier and lets governments, merchants, and individuals pay their debts. But money is much more than just an economic object. It can be a work of art, a political messenger, or a piece of jewelry. Since at least the Renaissance, coins have attracted large numbers of collectors. Today millions of people all over the world collect coins, medals, and paper money. Coins allow you to hold a piece of history in your own hand. By looking at the money of many cultures and periods, we not only learn about their histories and perspectives, but we also gain a better understanding of what our money tells us about our culture and society today.

 For an online version of the late exhibition, please click here.

Numismatic Folk Art

Last evening was the opening for a new exhibition called “When the Curtain Never Comes Down” at the American Folk Art Museum. It features an eccentric collection of works by some two-dozen outsider artists from the United States and Europe.

© Courtesy Stefan Hartmaier/Gustav Mesmer Foundation
© Courtesy Stefan Hartmaier/Gustav Mesmer Foundation

The exhibition explores the link between performance art and the folk tradition through a variety of different media–films, sculpture, fashion, paintings, and music. The result is an often strange but lively mix of art that reflects the particular circumstances and preoccupations of their creators. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a collection of works by mental patients features prominently, including a spectacular film about Gustav Mesmer, a schizophrenic German inventor obsessed with designing human-powered flying machines.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The eclectic exhibition is a bit text-heavy, but the works themselves and the stories of the people behind them are almost invariably fascinating. I mention it here because it displays some work by Charlie Logan (1893-1984), a longtime resident of Alton, Illinois. Logan’s particular habit was to sew buttons, coins, and other bric-a-brac into clothing and accessories he made from his socks and beddings. The exhibition features an outfit (coat, vest, hat) and two canes on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art that show the his intricate technique. Logan ostensibly sewed coins into his clothes so he would not be robbed and then simply cut them out and used them as needed. In a celebrated study of art and folk traditions of the Black Atlantic, Robert Farris Thompson noted that Logan’s creations incorporated many cultural symbols and traditions of African origin. The “Diamond Sis” coat on display, for example, features a Kongo (Congolese) cosmogram, which is a quartered circle or diamond that symbolizes continuity and rebirth.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art (click for full view)

Logan’s craftwork was such that the coins are visible but not quite identifiable. Although one presumes that he was for the most part incorporating contemporary US coinage, an effort to figure out exactly what types of coins he was sewing into his wardrobe might be an interesting project.

 —Matthew Wittmann

“When the Curtain Never Comes Down: Performance Art and the Alter Ego” runs through July 5 at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, Columbus Avenue near 66th Street. www.folkartmuseum.org