New York City, the financial capital of the world, also boasts an impressive number of museums. When the two meet, the result is also impressive. Michael Alexander of the London Banknote and Monetary Research Centre visited the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street – the heart of America’s financial district and discovered a little bit of history about a subject loved by all, wanted by many, hated by none – Money!
There’s no doubt, New York is simply one of the most fascinating cities in the world – and it literally does have everything in one place. When you consider that NYC is the focal point for art, pop-culture, entertainment, fashion, media, food, (there is absolutely EVERY country’s cuisine represented there) it is little wonder that at the top of the list would be, finance! The New York Stock exchange on Wall Street – with its millions of shares traded on any given business day and just about every significant international bank has a corresponding office in NYC. The Federal Reserve in New York City is also one of the more important branches of the American banking system and it is known that their gold reserve deposits are among one of the largest in the world. If you are a big international conglomerate, you will most likely have a corporate office in New York City – it’s partly about image and of course, it’s about conducting business in the US. The saying “money makes the world go round” is truly alive & well in lower Manhattan despite the numerous “Occupy Wall Street” protests last year which sought to bring attention to the lack of responsible finance and a more equitable distribution of wealth world-wide.
On a recent visit to the Big Apple, I wanted to have another look at this very small street I myself once spent so much time on. Wall Street has so much say as to the state of the world’s economic activity that with one ill-conceived or inaccurate rumor, it can all come tumbling down in a “New York second”. For me or any visitor to the financial district, what better place to start this quest & discover what makes the place tick than the Museum of American Finance (MoAF).
A stone’s throw from the NYSE itself, the MoAF is the perfect place to embark on a journey of fact-finding with regard to just how the city developed & evolved into one of the world’s leading – if not the premier place to conduct international finance and big business. The Museum faced many challenges after 9/11 as did numerous other institutions in the aftermath. But, like many entities in the city, it bounced back and carried on, in the true American spirit and emerged bigger and better than before. The MoAF is housed in the old Bank of New York building which is in itself, a splendid architectural treasure with its sumptuous & stately interior. A series of murals chronicling the emergence of New York as a financial powerhouse were commissioned when the Building first opened and were carefully restored. I had an opportunity to speak with Becky Laughner, Director of Exhibits & Archives who kindly guided me through the many points of interest and explained the very impressive presence of Alexander Hamilton, the first American Secretary of the Treasury who was also the founder of the Bank of New York in 1784. As New York is a popular destination for many world travelers, I highly recommend a visit to the MoAF, especially if your interests follow the world of finance, in a city of hustle & bustle, it’s an oasis of peace and tranquility and… you might just learn something you didn’t know before about just what makes the world go round!
Michael Alexander: The Museum of American Finance has a very interesting beginning and was founded during one of the most tumultuous times in the financial world, can you tell our readers how and when the MoAF was founded and most of all why..?
Becky Laughner: The Museum of American Finance was founded by John Herzog in response to the Crash of 1987. A collector of historical financial documents working in the financial services industry, Herzog experienced the crisis firsthand. He founded the Museum to provide historical context for the financial markets, which he realized the country lacked. Today the Museum welcomes more than 47,000 visitors annually and partners with many non-profit financial literacy organizations, as well as other finance museums around the world through the International Federation of Financial Museums (IFFM), which the Museum co-founded in 2013.
MA: I understand the Museum was originally at a different location to the one we’re in today, when did the MoAF come to this beautiful building and what if any, were the outstanding aspects or incentives to relocating here..?
BL: The Museum was originally located at 26 Broadway in the Standard Oil Building. The size of the space at the Standard Oil Building prevented the Museum from showing more than one exhibit at a time, and there was no room for events or educational programs. The board spent several years searching for a suitable location to expand the Museum’s physical presence so that it could feature several permanent exhibits, along with timely rotating exhibits, and expand programmatic offerings.
In 2008, the Museum moved to 48 Wall Street, the former home of the Bank of New York and marked its arrival on Wall Street with the ringing of the New York Stock Exchange opening bell. The Museum’s exhibition galleries now occupy the building’s former banking hall. Because of its deep financial history, we consider the building to be an important artifact. The Museum’s current home is an ideal location, both because of the Wall Street address and the fact that it is an historic bank building.
MA: The previous location was quite close to the World Trade Center – how was the MoAF affected in the aftermath of 9/11 and were the events on that day a facilitator for the MoAF to relocate..?
BL: Located at 26 Broadway, MoAF was the closest museum to Ground Zero and, as such, was forced to close for several months after 9/11. Macy’s department store generously offered exhibition space in their Herald Square display windows during the holiday season, so the Museum was able to maintain a physical presence in New York City while Lower Manhattan was inaccessible. Prior to the attacks, the Museum’s board had begun looking for a larger space, but it became a more pressing need after 9/11, especially as the New York Stock Exchange closed its Visitor Center and Wall Street tourists had nowhere to go to learn about the financial markets.
MA: The murals on the upper floor where many of the exhibitions are located are in their own right an impressive attraction, what is their background and were they restored from the original Bank of New York building or commissioned for this project..?
BL: The eight murals in the grand mezzanine banking hall (the location of the Museum’s permanent exhibits) are original to the building. They were painted by architect and muralist James Monroe Hewlett and illustrate the advancement of American industry and finance parallel with the life of the Bank of New York. The first panel depicts the Bank of New York’s founding in 1784 and its original location at Walton House with Dutch settlers and Native Americans. The last panel depicts the advent of steel and electricity with an image of the Brooklyn Bridge, the first bridge to be constructed with steel wires. The Museum had all of the murals restored prior to opening in 2008.
MA: Alexander Hamilton, a man who was well-ahead of his time and who features prominently at the MoAF, as well as being the first Secretary of the Treasury – he also has an especially close relation to the MoAF. Can you explain some of this relation and perhaps offer something about Alexander Hamilton which might not be commonly known..?
BL: We consider Alexander Hamilton to be the Museum’s patron saint. The Museum has a gallery dedicated to his life and contributions to the US financial system that features important documents such as checks written by Hamilton and Alexander Burr (who killed Hamilton in a duel), some of the earliest Treasury reports written by Hamilton, and the first federal bonds which were executed as part of Hamilton’s assumption plan. We will re-launch this gallery in September with an exhibition of some of Hamilton’s monumental state papers.
Hamilton has several other important associations with the Museum. Our first exhibition in 1989 was about Alexander Hamilton. He was also the founder of the Bank of New York, whose former building is now the Museum’s home. We champion Hamilton in exhibitions and publications because his contributions to the US banking and financial systems are countless. In an era when the general public was suspicious of banking and finance, Hamilton advocated for a central bank, he promoted manufacturing because he understood its importance to the US economy, he founded the Bank of New York, he was the first US Treasury Secretary, and he is largely responsible for establishing the credit of the fledgling US government.
MA: I found the display of early American banknotes especially interesting as there are some very rare items included, especially the banknotes issued by private banks before the formation of the Federal Reserve, but which items in particular are perhaps unique to the MoAF or of special interest in this collection..?
BL: The Museum’s “Money: A History” gallery covers the history of American currency from Native American wampum to the most recent designs of the seven denominations of Federal Reserve Notes in circulation today. Some of the more rare and interesting notes include a beautifully engraved silver certificate of the 1896 series (also known as the Education Series), depicting allegorical figures of “History Instructing Youth.” Also on display are North African and Hawaii Emergency currency issued during World War II to circulate in those territories so that they could easily be identified and voided if they fell into enemy hands. The Hawaii note has the word “HAWAII” overprinted on both sides. The North Africa note is a silver certificate with a unique yellow Treasury seal. Although only a handful are on display in “Money: A History,” the Museum has a significant collection of early American colonial and continental currency. One of my favorite items in the currency collection is a Lansingburgh Museum penny, a one cent note issued in 1792 by a small library and museum in the town Lansingburgh in Rensselaer County, New York. I find the idea of museums issuing paper money very charming.
MA: The section dedicated to the Federal Reserve & its centennial anniversary, not many visitors may not realize that this institution is only 100 years old and serves at America’s Central Bank. Were there any aspects of the “Fed” that surprised you as the curator or something you didn’t know about its overall function..?
BL: Conducting research for “The Fed at 100” was fascinating because I had a limited knowledge of the institution before the exhibition. The Museum’s exhibition team worked closely with curators Dr. Richard Sylla of the NYU Stern School of Business and Dr. Eugene White at Rutgers University, and I think the research process was informative for everyone involved. The Fed is a complex and little-understood institution, so it was interesting to conduct research and work with Fed archivists throughout the process.
The Museum’s staff was granted special access to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s oral history program, which was incredibly revealing about Fed culture. Although it appears as a monolithic institution, the Fed was historically, and to some degree still is today, a very social and close-knit professional community. The Fed used to provide many social outlets and services to its employees, which I think surprised us and our curators. Some of the oral histories are excerpted in the 100 Objects section of the “The Fed at 100” exhibition, including an account by Madeline McWhinney, the first female officer in the Federal Reserve System.
MA: For many, the topic of money can be complicated in terms of what money is today as we no longer base our currency on gold & silver. What in your opinion is a question which is commonly asked by visitors and how is the definition of money today explained or exhibited at the MoAF..?
BL: Many of our young visitors have trouble understanding the concept of fiat money and that US currency is backed simply by faith in the government. In our exhibits, we take a historical perspective when teaching about money today by illustrating how money operated in the past and the evolution of money in America. We also try to grab visitors’ attention and generate interest in the history of money by displaying unusual and aesthetically interesting examples of currency.
MA: The current temporary exhibition is dedicated to the centennial anniversary of the Federal Reserve, can you tell our readers what is planned for the next topic and when the next change-over will be..?
BL: “The Fed at 100” exhibit will be on view through Spring 2015. In September 2014, we will re-launch the Alexander Hamilton Room with an emphasis on his monumental state papers, in honor of the 225th anniversary of his appointment as the first US Secretary of the Treasury. In early 2015, we are also planning a re-launch of the “Money: A History” exhibit, which will feature hundreds of the most beautiful examples of paper money throughout American history.
MA: As the director of exhibits, if you were to offer a bit of advice to a visitor as to what item or part of the displays they shouldn’t leave without seeing, what item would that be and why..?
BL: One of the most eye-catching items on display is the solid gold and jewel encrusted Monopoly set, which is on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Also, I would suggest visitors take the time to explore the 100 Objects on display for our “Fed at 100” exhibition. In addition to featuring interesting objects and stories pertaining to currency, the exhibit features unusual items such as women’s shoes from the 1950s, a watchman’s clock, liberty loan pins, a sweet grass braid and a Y2K countdown clock. The items do not include labels, but visitors can call a phone number to hear Fed employees and exhibit curators discussing the items and explaining their historical significance.
MA: For me. It would definitely have to be the banknote display – the chamber alone with its wall-lined printing plates is a clever way to make use of them! Becky Laughner, Director of Exhibits & Archives – Museum of American Finance, thank you so much for your time today, I enjoyed myself immensely.
BL: Thank you very much!
I would like to extend my genuine appreciation to Mark Tomasko and Mark Anderson of the New York Numismatic Club who very kindly took time to accompany me on my tour and offered commentary, insight and valuable information on the many banknotes on display, thank you both very much. The Museum of American Finance is open from Tuesday thru Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm with free admissions for all visitors on Saturdays through 2014. For more information on planning your visit, please visit their website at: http://www.moaf.org/index
Don’t forget to stop by the MoAF gift shop, there is a very varied selection of souvenirs, books and gifts for all interests and budgets!
All images © Michael Alexander & LBMRC UK 2014