Objects are powerful sources for the study of African history. A new free online resource on West African currencies provides an original way of using objects in the classroom and beyond. Created by the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection in partnership with the London School of Economics, teachers can now use over 800 West African coins, banknotes, and alternative currencies from across the region to help students explore a wide range of themes such as trade, imperialism, nationalism, and the relationship between money and cultural identity.
The first stage of the project involved making this formerly hidden collection freely available online. The collection encompasses objects used in exchange in West Africa from the 18th to the 21st centuries. From figurative Akan gold weights to crescent manillas and colorful banknotes, this vibrant and varied group of objects could be used to engage students with the economic and social life of the region over this eventful period.
We are now looking to partner with teachers to create small curated groups of objects with age appropriate supporting material that connect to existing lesson plans on African and global history using the Smithsonian’s free Learning Lab platform. The Learning Labs can be created upon request by the project leaders, Dr. Leigh Gardner and Dr. Ellen Feingold, or by teachers and students themselves. Teachers should feel free to reach out to Dr. Gardner and Feingold with any lesson plans they would like Learning Labs created for or simply to discuss their ideas. Teachers and students can create their own Learning Lab accounts here and use any objects from the Smithsonian’s catalog they wish to teach in the classroom.
As examples, there are two Learning Labs currently available online. The first provides an overview of money and exchange in West Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries illustrating the history told by the collection and varied objects included in it. It also offers a bibliography of suggested further reading on key themes. The second Learning Lab is on the role of the U.S. dollar in Liberia, which highlights the complex role of the United States in Liberia’s history.
Additional learning labs are in development, addressing broader themes in African and global history. One is on money during colonial rule, which uses the history of currency objects to explore African experience of colonialism. Objects will include both coins and notes issued by European colonial governments along with alternative currency objects from the pre-colonial period which people continued to use despite the efforts of colonial officials to enforce monetary uniformity. Another uses examples of new national currencies issued at independence to examine the process of decolonization. The third uses currencies issued during World War II to investigate how the war affected African economies and societies. We would be delighted to discuss these and other ideas with teachers interested in using these objects in their classrooms.