Reimaging and Reimagining our Coin Collections

Museum of the Order of St John Justin Bailey - museum office assistant

The Museum of the Order of St John has a unique collection of coins dating from the 12th to the 16th Centuries, representing some of the many kingdoms and principalities which sprang into existence across the Mediterranean and the Near East during the Crusades. They can be viewed online or in our galleries, where they offer fascinating background and context to the story of the Knights of St John.

During the Crusades coins were a useful form of mass communication, perfect for conveying political messages to a wide audience as currency circulated from hand to hand throughout a particular region. The coin below is from the County of Edessa, one of the feudal Christian Crusader States of the Near East in the 12th Century. It shows a knight holding a sword and crucifix, clear symbols of military strength religious devotion whose presence aimed to solidify political and religious identity in a turbulent era.

crusader coin from edessa

Our coins are among our most fascinating collection objects, but they are also some of the hardest to display. Some are as small as 1 centimetre across, and presenting them in a manner which allows visitors to see and appreciate their fine details can be extremely difficult. We’ve recently experimented with showing these coins alongside high resolution photographs in our gallery displays, which has really helped to bring them to life for our visitors. The photographs we used were originally taken as part of the Bearers of the Cross project, which aimed create a useful online resource for academic researchers, and it’s brilliant that we have been able to find an excellent additional use for them as a component of our in situ displays.

We expect museums to be rich in visual content, whether it be original objects or interpretive images, like maps, but displays which provide other kinds of sensory information have an important role to play too as an alternative means of engaging with Museum collections. Institutions like the V&A often include touch objects which encourage visitors to interpret collections through feeling and tactile sensation. While these have obvious benefits for visitors with visual impairments they are a brilliant way for all visitors to experience collections in a manner not usually possible.

With this in mind, the Museum has recently explored the use of some new and different technologies to reinterpret our coin collections in a way which puts a special emphasis on touch. Working with local firm Printing Portal we have had two of our coins mapped using a laser scanner, a piece of specialised imaging equipment which can capture objects as three-dimensional digital replicas, allowing them to be edited on a computer or refabricated using 3D-printing.

a coin being scanned by a laser scanner

This technology has many uses, and our friends at Printing Portal are commissioned to map and all kinds of objects, from architectural models to machine parts, although our coins are among the oldest items they have worked with. The scanner projects a pattern of light onto the surface of an object and uses cameras to measure the reflection to gradually build up an image in three dimensions. Like an ordinary camera the laser scanner only records what it can “see”, so building a complete object requires multiple passes from different angles to capture every detail. Once complete, the scanning reveals remarkable fine detail, down to the tiniest scratches and marks made over centuries of handling.

We plan to have large scale replicas 3D printed in resin, taking our fragile 1 centimetre coins into durable 15 cm replicas which can withstand extensive touching and handling. These replicas will have many of the same benefits as our photographic enlargements, but they will have the added value of being far more interactive. We even hope to use them in learning activities, where they will be perfect for making wax rubbings with crayons. With scanning now complete we are looking forward to receiving our new coins as the latest and largest additions to a collection dating back 900 years.

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