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Common Wealth


I have asked that people offer some kind of appreciation of the objects I am presenting. But what do I mean by appreciation? Well, I mean simply noticing some real quality of the object.

This has nothing to do with liking or disliking it, but simply observing it.

Observing something without trying to change it in any way will cause its real qualities to unfold.

By contrast, the way to make something fade away is to give it no attention. Every accountant knows that depreciation happens automatically.

When we actively pay attention to something it will give a return on the investment. It will pay us back with its nature.

This interest can be ploughed back in. The more attention you pay to something, the more full of interest it will become.

The great thing is that the returns can also be used elsewhere. The capacity to pay attention grows as things become interesting.

As attention appreciates you become more richly conscious.

Consciousness is a universal currency, but like any current it has to flow. It’s only value is in exchange.

In accumulating wealth the difficult bit is in the beginning, when you’re just a young start-up. You have to be prepared to invest some capital in paying attention to something that seems utterly worthless.

A useful initial object is the breath, because no one can complain that they haven’t got any. It’s instantly available to even the most poverty stricken person. But the object can be anything, A piece of moss, a drop of water, a fly, a bone, a stone, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the attention that’s important, the appreciation of the object.

People start with different amounts of attention. A very weak or impatient or angry person will not be able to appreciate what is right under their nose. But gradually, with some initial effort, it is possible to find interesting qualities in even the most mundane thing.

Then it becomes important  to not obsessively fixate on it. It’s the business that is important, not the widget.

Gradually you build up capital which you can use to pay attention elsewhere. The more attention you pay, the more interest you receive and the richer you become.

Eventually everything is interesting and you find yourself in a palace of priceless beauty. A treasury.

All this starts from just paying attention. It starts from appreciating the qualities of the most mundane object.

So what happens to all this treasure? It’s everywhere in the world, all around, not just held in some special ‘sacred’ place.

But if you want to save it to use later where can you put it? In the memory bank of course!

The memory bank is not some dusty vault or a secret archive or a building. It is an activity, a muscle that must be used.

Do you remember your multiplication tables? Or a line of poetry? Or a scene from your childhood? Or your own name?

We remember anything by consciously noticing it. Every time something is repeated it comes into the forefront of the mind. Its details are noticed. Whichever details are clearly noted will remain distinct for some time. And whatever is repeatedly brought to mind will live longer in memory.

So it is with the objects I am bringing to mind during my time in the Tower of this great treasury. We are free to neglect the objects and let them disappear forever. After all it’s simply not possible to hold onto everything.

In fact, it’s not possible to hold onto anything. Each of us will disappear. Even carefully cultivated memories will one day fail. We will forget how to tie our shoelaces. Mothers will forget the names of their children. Cities and empires will crumble away and be buried. Languages will be lost. The species Homo Sapiens will die out.

But while we are here, we can make the choice to value awareness, to remember the totality of ourselves, to appreciate the web of phenomena that gives rise to this present moment.

As an individual I may or may not appreciate what is before me. That is a private matter. But as a society, as a collection of individual awarenesses, we weave a powerful web.

By sharing our individual experiences of appreciation we can build a valuable society. And how do we share our individual experiences? Through language, music, visual representations, mathematics, social acts.

My purpose in this blog is simply to present a chance for us to express our appreciation of forty objects. This is a chance to build value, to stop for a moment the slide into oblivion, to simply notice a real thing about each object and share it. In doing this we we make it beautiful and we enrich ourselves.

No jewel is more precious then the one slipping away from you right now.

The process of forgetting, of neglect, obscurity, absent-mindedness, decay, destruction, entropy, all this is going on automatically. It’s natural depreciation. To halt it takes just one person to contribute their point of view. This contribution is a gift, the unique product of a particular viewpoint that cannot be matched by anyone else.

Once given as a gift the object is rescued. It is valued. If we do this with one object after another we create a culture. And as a community we can join together to decide just what kind of culture to create.

Here’s today’s object.

British West Africa Penny (cropped)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Bodger permalink
    11/07/2009 1:19 pm

    My first instinct was to put it on a chain and wear it so people could see it.

    Then I looked again.

    “British West Africa”? Perhaps colonialism shouldn’t be worn around the neck.

    But how do we unravel the depth of an era and a set of attitudes that this object points towards?

    Tricky one.

    • 13/07/2009 10:26 am

      What jewellery could one wear innocently? A diamond from DeBeers mined from a South African Game Reserve? Gold from a corrupt Peruvian goldmine?

      The first line of ‘The Nazarene’, a novel by the Yiddish writer Scholem Asch, is ‘Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition of our existence.’

      He wrote that before the Holocaust had happened but the sentiment has been echoed by many others since.

      Would any bereaved person ever be able to be laugh without the power of forgetfulness?

      Could you eat meat if you remembered the suffering of the animal you were chewing?

      Tricky one indeed.

  2. KATE ILES permalink
    11/07/2009 3:42 pm

    We had biscuit tin boxes full of these coins when I was a child because my grandfather had worked for Cadbury’s in West Africa and bought them home with him – we used them to weigh down the bucket that held our Christmas tree! My grandma told me that the hole in the middle of the coin was there so they could be put on strings and worn like necklaces as the “natives” (her terminology, not mine) didn’t have wallets or purses. I thought our Cadbury’s connection was a real coo as it meant we had access to the Chocolate Shop at Bourneville so our pantry was full of mis shapen Roses chocolates and Curly Wurlies. Feel much more ambiguous on seeing this image though, there’s something of the slave trade about it…..

  3. cosi (smiling) permalink
    14/07/2009 10:28 am

    I’m surprised at some of the negativity of the comments!
    Let me tell you what just looking at this object made me think of:
    – British West Africa…how exotic, warm…
    – 1915 – a more innocent time maybe, although the First World War had started it’s full horror was still to come, not to mention the rest of the 20th century…
    – the coin’s design is striking. Is there a specific reason it bears the star of David? and why not use the handy hole to wear it around your neck? Does showing/diplaying something mean you agree with all its negative connotations? Surely not! Or we should close all Slavery and Holocaust exhibits!

    Before the Second world war ordinary people such as my grandmother had aspirations of living and working in German East Africa. The British were “spoilt” with so many colonies. To other Europeans the prospect of moving to a colony was something very special and aspirational. They saw themselves as building new countries and economies. I am deliberately leaving to one side that this happened very much on the backs of the indigenous populations, because I am talking about how people of 1915 thought and felt, rather super-imposing our own modern values.

    I like this coin.

  4. hankspears permalink
    15/07/2009 3:27 pm

    If “superimposing our modern values” means taking the rights and feelings of indigenous people into account, then perhaps we should be doing that 😉

  5. trine permalink
    18/07/2009 2:45 pm

    coins….money makes the world,ive just visited a charity shop,and bought a coin,a round coin, well not a real coin, though i did find a brand new all shiny ten p piece as a i was walking along,but this one was plaster,and the size of a dinner plateInteresting experience meeting humanists at their meetings,it was interesting,and slightly uneasy:as sometimes the word “spirit” would slip out,and into the discussions, then there was an uneasy momen,a pause, as if something inappropriate had been said.. perhaps in the internal recesses of the collective mind, thoughtouts danced and jostled,Oops spirit…is that religious?

    Theres so much we dont know, which is symbolic,and powerfully symbolic,as money is.
    And currently the currency is propped up,and there are those who are at a loss,in debted,impoverished,and starved not only of food,ofinspirations.And maybe for more that fourty days and nights,enclosed by the thoughts of being without, worried and impoverished…..

    i was sent an email yesterday,a quote, and it went “prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening to God”. Pretty neat.

    Objects, especially found objects,can be filled with mystery. And become a scource, of investigation and discovery,and revelation.And the west african coin with its hole,is similar to the chinese coins usually used in threes,for devination and fortune telling,in casting the I Ching.

    “consciousness is a universal currency” you said,

    And how mint condition is our collective consciousness? Perhaps,it would be well worth considering,given the recent history of events with economics and money exchange in the banking system, should we consider the psychogeoraphy of debt and give gratitude in our searches in shops and elsewhere,consider, with care our ancestral origins and collective efforts,and honour the wilderness.Even value it more than the trafford centre?

  6. 06/08/2009 9:27 am

    If it’s coming down to disposal time, I’ll make an offer for this one. I work in the Department of Coins & Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I would expect that we have one of these—I haven’t been able to find out yet—and given as it’s a modern machine-made coin there won’t be the crucial differences that tell us so much with hand-made ones. But that’s not the point. Its original use may be interesting for historians of the British Empire, and it may make quite a good object piece for that given its odd mixture of European and Eastern styles, the Western coin-press shape combined with the hole for stringing and the six-pointed star that, to our eyes, sings of somewhere else entirely. Nonetheless, that’s not half as interesting as the fact that it has become part of this project. If we can add this to our collections, the provenance will have to include a short summary of why Manchester were deaccessioning it, and thus at least mention the Hermit project. That will make it one of the more fascinating things we’ve dealt with over the last little while, completely aside from what it actually is. The new rôle has given it new meaning.

    So, what am I offering? Well, if you let me have it, I will use one of my research days to come up to Manchester and collect it, which will also be a chance to see some friends up there I don’t see enough of. Then once it’s back in Cambridge I’ll add it to our next catalogue upload (this being what I handle) and I’ll make it part of our Hidden Histories project, which is exactly about the circumstances by which things in the Museum came to be acquired and their history as collected objects. This will be a brilliant addition to a project that, like yours, is meant to draw people’s interest into museums and preservation, and will help to link our agendas to your more philosophical ones.

    Does anyone else think that’s an idea worth supporting?

    • m.e. montenegro permalink
      06/08/2009 7:44 pm

      Yes, I do. Thank you for your words. I marveled at that coin and had a fleeting thought of acquiring it, since the six-pointed star is such a powerful symbol not only in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also in esoteric Buddhism and elsewhere. Your proposal seems to me to dignify it with a proper context.

  7. keith sugden permalink
    08/10/2009 2:57 pm

    I’m the curator responsible for providing this piece. Thank you all for your comments!

    After discussion with colleagues, I shall offer the coin to Jonathan Jarrett at the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Coin Room for his Hidden Histories project.

  8. 08/03/2013 7:56 pm

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