People Reports from Institutions

Change at the British Museum: Philip Attwood retires after 41 years

Philip Attwood is leaving the British Museum on 1st May after forty-one years in the Department of Coins and Medals, including ten years as its Keeper. Philipis an internationally respected authority on the history of the medal and, in parallel, has played a leading role in Britain and beyond in the promotion of medal-making now. These two main interests were united in his roles as Curator in Coins and Medals at the British Museum and as Secretary (1992-2008), then President (2008-2018) of the British Art Medal Society.

Philip Attwood, in 1986, in one of his first exhibitions on badges in Gallery 69A.

 Philip began his British Museum career as a museum assistant in the Departments of Greek and Roman Antiquities and Medieval and Later Antiquities. He joined Coins and Medals in 1979 and soon began to work closely with Mark Jones. During his early years in the Department he focused on nineteenth-century medal-making, publishing a ground-breaking series of articles, which included pioneering investigations on women medallists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. He also built up the Museum’s now substantial badge collection (published in two BM Occasional Papers in 1985 and 1990), bringing a contemporary urgency to the department’s collecting. Once a space was created for it in the mid-1980s, he oversaw the departmental exhibition programme, which has allowed a wide range of objects and ideas to be presented to the public ever since. As Curator of Modern Coins, he was responsible for another enormous acquisition programme. He was appointed Curator of Medals in 2002 by Dr Andrew Burnett.    

Philip’s catalogue of  Italian medals, c.1530-1600, in British public collections  was published in 2003, and has since become the much sought after, fundamental reference book on this subject. In parallel with his long study of Italian medals, he specialized in the history of the British nineteenth-century medal. The British Museum exhibition  Artistic Circles: the medal in Britain 1880-1918 (1992-95), which  travelled to museums across the UK, explored the revival of the cast medal in this period and consolidated this new field of study. His book  Hard at work- The diary of Leonard Wyon 1853-1867  appeared as a British Numismatic Society Special Publication in 2014, providing an insight into the life and working methods of a member of arguably the greatest family of UK coin-engravers and medallists. His acclaimed exhibition  Medals of Dishonour, co-curated with sculptor Felicity Powell, combined these two principal strands in his work. Historic satirical medals were juxtaposed with specially commissioned new works by artists, from the Chapman Brothers and Grayson Perry to Mona Hatoum and Cornelia Parker, all of whom were making medals for the first time. The exhibition could be seen at the British Museum in 2009 and at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, in 2011-12. 

Four Keepers of the Department of Coins and Medals at Cutlers’ Hall in London on 11 November 2019: Philip Attwood, Andrew Burnett, Mark Jones, and Joe Cribb.

In 2010 Philip succeeded Joe Cribb as Keeper of Coins and Medals, where he has led a team of nine collection curators and one project curator. One of his first achievements was to secure funding for the refreshment of the Museum’s Money Gallery, which he then oversaw. During his tenure, the department received a major bequest from the late Marion Archibald, a beloved colleague in the Department of Coins and Medals, who died in 2016. Dedicated solely to purchases for the department’s collections, the endowment enables major purchases of coins, medals, banknotes, and tokens. The first acquisition from this bequest was a spectacular gold medal by the British sculptor Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934). Commissioned by St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London to accompany a scholarship in honour of Sir William Lawrence (1783-1867), the medal shows the eminent surgeon full-face.

Alfred Gilbert: St Bartholomew’s Hospital Lawrence memorial medal, 1897, gold.

Following Philip’s departure from the British Museum, the Department of Coins and Medals will be run for an interim period by Jane Portal, the Museum’s Keeper of Asia. Tom Hockenhull is taking over curatorial responsibility for the medals, becoming Curator of Medals and Modern Money. Philip will maintain his involvement with medals, as editor of the British Art Medal Society journal  The Medal (which he has steered since 1990, as co-editor with Mark Jones until 1997 and sole editor thereafter), and will continue his term as President of FIDEM, begun in 2012.Philip is a great curator. He has also been an outstanding  Keeper of Coins and Medals. It’s been a privilege to be his colleague. Everyone at the Museum will miss his wisdom, humanity and legendary efficiency very much indeed,” said Dr Jonathan Williams, Deputy Director of the British Museum. 

Philip Attwood on one of his hiking holidays.