Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet

Coin cabinet
The Winchester coin cabinet

Third year history student Emma Herbert-Davies writes about her Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship project: cataloguing one of the University’s coin collections.

The Winchester Cabinet is a collection of over 3000 coins, medals and tokens dating from Ancient Greece to the eighteenth century. It was compiled by a barrister named William Eyre who bequeathed the cabinet to Winchester Cathedral on his death in 1764. The collection remained in the Cathedral for almost two hundred years until it was purchased by the University of Leeds in 1954. It is impressive in both the variety and quality of its coins and is a rare example of a complete eighteenth-century collection. Last year I was awarded a research scholarship and my project brief was to catalogue the contents of the cabinet and create a digital exhibition.

Beginning the project initially felt quite daunting as I had no experience of numismatics (the study of coins) and so I knew that it was going to be a steep learning curve. Each coin has to be identified, weighed, measured and both sides photographed. Identification can take time, especially if the coin is worn. I have spent many hours surrounded by volumes of reference books, peering through a jeweler’s loupe at part of an elbow or beard on a coin trying to identify it correctly. Challenging, but a great feeling when I finally pinpoint the coin! The details are then entered onto a database so that all the information can be made available as a digital catalogue.

What surprised me most about my project was learning just how valuable coins are as primary sources. As I worked my way through the cabinet, from two-thousand-year-old Roman denarii to the siege pieces of the seventeenth century, I realised that the artwork on ancient coins reflected changes in history and culture. Each one was designed to pass on a particular message or construct a carefully designed image of a ruler. I was particularly struck how the portraits on coins could be compared today’s use of social media such as ‘selfies’. In an era without any form of mass communication, coins were ideal for spreading information as currency was something that most people used. Not only was I learning numismatics, I was discovering new ways of interpreting the past.

To share my research I created a Twitter account for the Winchester Cabinet that has been quite successful. It has enabled me to make connections with numismatists, curators and students worldwide and I have been asked to give talks on the collection. With the help of the Special Collections team I am designing virtual and physical exhibitions for this autumn. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the project for me is the discovery of numismatics – a subject that I hadn’t even known existed – but which has developed into what will probably become a lifelong passion. The Winchester Cabinet forms only one small part of the University’s substantial coin collection, but unlocking its contents has opened many doors for me.

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