Manillas were open bracelets, cast from copper and then brass and later still from iron. From the late 15th to the early 20th centuries, they circulated widely, especially along the West African equatorial coast, in various sizes and weights. Manillas were also cast in Birmingham, England, and traded as currency in West Africa.

The manillas in this exhibition include the smaller standard size and the so-called queen manilla. The larger specimens were considered a store of wealth. Small manillas would often be amassed and then taken to the blacksmith to be melted and re-formed into the larger size.

Some manillas were decorated with incised designs, or a second coil of metal was twisted around the shank. The quality of their ringing sound and the amount of "flash," or excess metal extruded at the joints of the mold, helped determine their value. Metalsmiths from the Kingdom of Benin, part of today's Nigeria, melted down the imported manillas and recast the metal into works of art.