Lots of Lovely Money in Lausanne

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Cantonal Museum of Money, Musée monétaire cantonal, Lausanne, Switzerland

Now I know that looking at defunct coins that have no current purchasing power is not interesting to everyone, but I am a fan.  The amount you can learn from coinage is amazing, quite apart from the fact that many coins from the Greek world are extremely beautiful.

The Cantonal Museum of Money, like the other museums in the Palais Rumine, provides a small selection of the vast collection at their disposal.  They have more than 80,000 objects relating to money, and new items are added every year, largely thanks to the legal obligation that all coins found in Vaud are given to the museum.

One aim of the museum is to show the value of coins for historical knowledge, but the other aim is to demonstrate the function of money in society.  For this, there are lots of interactive bits and pieces on the circular table-like structure in the centre of the room.

The history of coinage and its impact on the world is examined from its origins in the Greek world in the 6th century-ish BC.  I wrote an essay on this once, so don’t get me started on the hazy beginnings of money.  Anyway, the displays also explain very nicely how to decipher coinage minted during the Roman period, when the inscriptions are formulaic and easy to understand once you’ve learned a few phrases.  There are also some interesting post-Roman coins, as well as coins minted in Switzerland.

Some of the most interesting objects for me, though, were the manillas. These bracelets were usually made of bronze or copper and were used as a form of currency in West Africa.  The origins appear to be in the local communities of the region, where copper bracelets and leg bands were worn by women to display their husbands’ wealth.  The earliest Portuguese traders therefore fed the local interest in bracelets (or manella in Spanish) and used them as currency.

The earliest use of the manillas as ‘money’ was in Calabar, a Nigerian coastal kingdom.  In 1505, a slave could be bought for 8-10 manillas, and an elephant’s tooth for one copper manilla.  However, different areas had different concepts of how much value the manilla had, and different designs had different values.  In Nigeria, for example, in 1856, the British Consul listed five different patterns of manillas and the markets which accepted them.

In 1948, the British tried to replaces manillas with currency in British West Africa (Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia and Nigeria).  People could keep a maximum of 200 manillas for important ceremonial purposes, such as for marriages and burials, but in all over 32 million pieces were bought by the government at the value of 3 pennies and less, depending on the type.

So In Summary

I loved this little museum.  I really, really wished I was a child so I could do all the awesome activities aimed at young visitors, but since I am an adult, and a little self-conscious, I didn’t.  Trying to explain the history of money is difficult, because it ends up by being dry and really quite dull.  I think the curators have done a fantastic job of making the subject interesting, engaging and informative.  And attractive.  Other coin departments can learn from these guys in Lausanne.

Further Information

The museum is free, like all the museums in the Palais Rumine.  The Money Museum does have its own website, but it’s only in French: www.musee-monetaire.ch

There are lots of aspects of the exhibition which are aimed at children rather than adults, and there are regular opportunities to join in with organised activities.  However, it is all in French.  I don’t know if anything is available for children in English if you ask – not having a child with me, I didn’t want to pose that question myself.

How To Get There

Please check out the Palais Rumine for information.


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