The history and future of money on display

I’m just back from a trip to London without my computer (hence the silence). While, there, I paid a visit to the British Museum for the first time in ages. I remembered the imposing façade, but had not seen the luminous inner court that makes you feel like you’re floating in light. I found myself doing laps in a sort of daze… And it was only morning.

Peeling off into the gloom of history, I came face to face with a surprising combination of permanence and progress that layers cultures on top of and next to each other, creating an incongruous sense of continuity. An ideal way to feel small and yet part of something important.

british museum

My main objective was to check out the History of Money exhibition, sponsored by Citibank. The room is small but packed with information, examples and anecdotes. The displays are intriguingly split down the middle into “The history of money” and “The history of coinage” – most attempts at synthesising the timeline conflate the two.

early coins

I confess that I had assumed that coins were tokens representing money. According to the curators, it turns out I was wrong – only metal tokens classify. The cowrie shells used in China are on the “money” side of the room (an interesting detail: the Chinese word for shell – bei – is still used to talk about money today).

Yet we refer to digital currencies as “coins”. The official definition (according to Google, of course) agrees with the curators, that coins are metal. Merriam Webster takes a broader view, allowing a coin to be “something resembling a coin especially in shape”, or “something used as if it were money (as in verbal or intellectual exchange)”. I’m on the side of the broad definition. But this is worthy of debate.

cowrie shells

There is so much in the history of money that points to what money could look like tomorrow. The earliest coins (minted around 650BC in Lydia) appear to have been “authorised” by the king (central authority). But the system didn’t hold for all cultures, and in the 1600s, London saw the issuance of local, business-specific tokens exchangeable for coffee, ale, fruit, etc.

We worry today about our ability to manage a host of different tokens. But back then, without electronic wallets, people seemed to manage. True, this was during a time when the government had stopped issuing small change, so there was a market opportunity (and not much alternative). But still, it speaks to our ability to organise when there is incentive to do so.

business tokens

Also on exhibit was the first global currency: the silver eight-reales, or “pieces of eight”, which later became the basis for the dollar. Issued by the Spanish empire from the end of the 16th century, they became the standard trade coins for most of Europe and Asia.

While it wasn’t the only currency in circulation at the time, it shows that a virtual alternative could end up accepted around the world for a specific purpose. Could this point to global acceptance of a niche use for bitcoin, or perhaps a specific use-case cryptocurrency?

british notes

There is so much more to unpack from the exhibition, which warrants further study. For instance, how even in some euro countries, more than one currency circulates. Did you know that in Northern Ireland some commercial banks have the right to issue bank notes, even today? And it turns out that the islands of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man issue their own versions of the British pound.

In a stroke of coincidence or perhaps insightful intent, the Money gallery is right next to another whose concept is also based on a fundamental innovation in measurement: clocks and watches. The idea of standard measures for the passage of the abstract idea of time is as fundamental to our modern world as that of measuring value and debt. Food for thought.

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