Philip Attwood

Keeper of Coins and Medals, British Museum

In 2009, as curator of medals at the British Museum, I was asked to act as advisor to London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG), who wanted the best medals possible for the London 2012 Games. The Museum has an internationally renowned collection of medals, from Italian Renaissance artists of the 15th century to international artists of today, and I have worked in the Department of Coins and Medals for more than thirty years.

LOCOG decided that out of the tenders received, the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales, offered the best value for money as manufacturer. Choosing the designer however was a more complex process and one in which I was closely involved.

We decided to hold a limited competition. Throwing the net wider might have dissuaded established artists from joining in (moreover, the Royal Mint had gone to the general public for many of its special Olympic and Paralympic coin designs), but simply going ahead and selecting one particular artist would have been to turn our backs on a huge range of creative talent.

Accordingly, we asked national and regional arts bodies to come up with names of artists and designers. Of those contacted, around fifty came up with initial designs. These were considered by a LOCOG panel, with me and Niccy Hallifax (the Executive Producer of the Victory & Welcome Ceremonies) as advisors.

The six short-listed artists were then invited in to the British Museum, where Niccy and I discussed their designs with them. Working with the Royal Mint, the artists went on to produce 3D models, which were considered by the panel at a final meeting held at the V&A.

We had always assumed that one artist would produce both the Olympic and Paralympic medals, but at this meeting it became apparent that David Watkins’s design would be especially appropriate for the Olympic medal, and Lin Cheung’s for the Paralympic. The Museum’s cast of an ancient Greek statue of the goddess Nike (Victory) from Olympia served as the basis of one side of Lin Cheung’s medal.

Out of the wide range of artists and designers, working in very different media, who were contacted, it was two jewellers who were selected. From earliest times many medal-making artists have also worked in this area, such as the celebrated 16th century goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. The ability to work on a small scale and to concentrate a number of ideas into a small area is perhaps the key element here.

In September 2011 both medals went on public display at the British Museum, where they will remain until 9 September 2012. The display places the medals in the context of the long-standing links between Britain and the Olympic and Paralympic movements. These include the 19th-century Wenlock, Shropshire and National Olympian Games, the London Olympic Games of 1908 and 1948, and the Stoke Mandeville Games for people with disabilities, first held in 1948.

Of course, as this display is in the British Museum, the medals also appear in the context of the ancient Olympic Games. A specially created Olympic tour through the Museum begins with the celebrated Discobolus, the figure of a discus-thrower by the ancient Greek sculptor Myron, and ends with 2012.

Visit the medals at the British Museum