Obverse and reverse: anatomy of a coin (LS-GR-226)

We use coins and banknotes every day and our students do so as well. But do we ever stop to observe the images on them? Have we ever thought about the meaning and the message these images bear?


The following Learning Scenario aims to familiarize students with the euro as the official currency of 19 European countries.

Banknotes and coins, as everyday objects as well as cultural elements, provide a suitable means to understand the culture and the ideology of the EU institution: euro coins have a side common to all members of the Eurozone as well as a national side. It is very interesting to research what each country chose to represent on this national side. Moreover, the bridges and windows depicted on the euro banknotes symbolize collaboration and openness as EU values. However, they do not correspond to actual buildings so as not to be associated with certain countries. They do, however, represent 7 periods/styles of European architecture. The objective was to familiarize students with all the above information through creative and engaging activities.

Not all euros are Greek!

Firstly, students observed images of coins from the Europeana Collections as well as the obverse and reverse sides of the euro coins they had in their pockets. They were impressed by the variety of the chosen representations and many of them were even taken aback when they realised that not of all the euro coins in their pockets were Greek!

Students observing images of coins from the Europeana Collections
Students observing images of coins from the Europeana Collections
Students observing the images on the euro coins they had in their pockets
Students observing the images on the euro coins they had in their pockets

Then, they researched and presented the representations of the national side of several European countries’ coins. This way they learned a lot about the different countries and they had a chance to discuss the following questions: Which aspects of their culture do the different countries choose to highlight? Do you think these choices were right? Would you have made different choices?

Students presenting the representations on the  Italian euro coins
Students presenting the representations on the  Italian euro coins

Non-existing buildings!

Then, they researched the styles/periods of European architecture depicted on the different denominations, browsing the Europeana Collections. It was easy for them to decipher the underlying symbolism in the images of bridges and gates depicted on the banknotes. What was rather surprising for them was the fact that none of the images correspond to actual buildings. So, they set out to find real buildings in Europe of the different styles represented on the different denominations. The groups posted their findings on several interactive maps of Europe created with Padlet, one for each style. For example, a separate map was created for the architecture of the 19th century.

The interactive map created for the architecture of the 19th century
The interactive map created for the architecture of the 19th century

A “new euro”

As a final activity, students were asked to design new euro coins and banknotes inspired by different aspects of the European civilization as depicted in images from the Europeana Collections. The outcomes they created speak for themselves!

500 euro banknote designed by students based on Portret of the poet Ilarie Voronca by Victor Brauner
5 euro banknote designed by students based on The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi  by Theodoros Vryzakis


The students unanimously agreed that the project was very interesting and helped them learn new things.

They were particularly impressed by the underlying ideology in the representations on the banknotes and the coins and having them examine the coins and banknotes they use every day under a different lens was revealing for them.

They showed genuine interest in researching the choices each European country made for the national side of its euro coins and had vivid and profound discussions on them. However, the activity they enjoyed most was the design of a “new euro” where they had the chance to unleash their creativity. Having fun while learning is always very effective!

Would you like to know more about this learning scenario? You can download it below:

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The featured image used to illustrate this article belongs to the public domain.

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