A celebration of money at the British Museum almost drowns the sound of the City’s Big Bang

The language of the deal, buying and selling, cheap and dear, dominates our social existence and generates out metaphors and images. No wonder that we find money itself so fascinating. Money, of course, is only a sign, a signifier of value. But value is a slippery, abstract concept; so elusive and vertiginous, in fact, that we turn with relief to its material expression – coins, tokens, stamped documents, scrip, coupons, cheques, banknotes, credit cards – which we then invest with magical presence as palpable icons of a hidden and intangible power. The organisers of the British Museum’s ‘Money: From Cowrie Shells to Credit Cards’ provide a rich array of them. We are led past heaps of cowrie shells, glittering lumps of pale yellow electrum, discs, triangles, strips and ingots of gold and silver, iron money, salt money, copper money, money fashioned from feathers and rope, Western banknotes, and tokens made of everything from metal tags to plastic cards. En route we learn many things about the material nature of these icons: how they are sealed, minted, covered with un-copyable curlicues, stored, debased, counterfeited and so on.

The exhibition is well done and highly professional – a smooth, informative 4,000-year pedagogic jog from cowrie shells to credit cards – and family clean (no mention of the money/faeces nexus, though the marvelous Gillray frontispiece cartoon gold falling from between Midas’ legs gives a hint, and hardly a scarab in sight). The catalogue reproductions are expertly presented and there’s a kiddies’ guide-to-money available with crosswords and join-the-dot pictures. The final exhibit is a money dispensing machine inviting us to insert plastic in exchange for paper cash. The machine is presented in a user-friendly way, demystified way: its casing has been replaced by Perspex to real its normally hidden micro-circuit innards, it is brightly lit and carries the protective logo of the Nationwide Building Society which, of course, is the sponsor of the exhibition. The punter walks out of the exhibition friendly towards the Nationwide, mystified about money’s relation to power and full of interesting facts. But money is of perennial interest, so it’s legitimate to ask: why now? Why an exhibition about money in London, 1986?

Well, 1986, the organisers tell us, is the 150th anniversary of the Royal Numismatic Society, as well as the year the International Numismatic Congress meets in London. But these dates seem as much retrospective luck as judgment and, in any case, have little to do with the interest of the Nationwide. What then? Immediately before the friendly cash machine, and after the great glut of signifiers, we pass through a small, dimly lit area to encounter money in its final electronic state: monitor screens glow and flash real-time changes in the London gold and foreign exchange markets. Here, surely, lies the reason the Nationwide’s sponsorship. London in Autumn 1986 (in fact, on 27 October, the day after the exhibition closes) is to be the scene of the Big Bang, the Stock Exchange’s quaint label for the complete de-regulation of the London financial and capital markets and, in the upheaval and financial bloodletting after the Bang, the Nationwide will be a player, fighting insurance companies, banks, and other building societies for a local slice of worldwide money.

Seen like this, the exhibition reveals itself as a nostalgic goodbye to money. Of course, money always evokes nostalgia for its day: a ten shilling note from 1971 seems like a message from a lost and alien era. But here the nostalgia is total. Money – familiar and dear to us through its stamped and inscribed signifiers is being put on history’s rubbish heap. Usurped by global electronic blips, it has entered the museum.

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