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Posted February 2, 2008
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Where the Capitalism Is (Always on Display)
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TheMuseum of American Finance, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, is newly relocated to 48 Wall Street, a block from the New York Stock Exchange.


A few years ago, when irrational exuberance reigned, opening a handsome museum devoted to the history and celebration of money just a block from the New York Stock Exchange might have seemed somewhat vulgar. In times of enthusiasm and plenty, celebration is superfluous. Why devote reverential attention to something when its powers are so omnipresent that they provide daily fodder for gossip?

Now, of course, it’s a different story. At a time of uncertainty — as the market quavers, the dollar sinks, sub-prime lenders go belly up, and the Federal Reserve Bank rapidly twists its dials — money becomes more puzzling and more unpredictable, demanding closer scrutiny.

So while opening the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street last month might at first have seemed like bad timing — like buying a stock at its top, or selling at its bottom — there was actually no better moment to mount this tribute to the “forces that have made New York City the financial capital of the world” (as one of the museum’s displays puts it). And if our city’s status and the currency that backs it are more contested than they once were, that only makes the enterprise more urgently intriguing.

In fact, the museum was founded just after the 1987 market crash, because John Herzog, chairman of a trading firm that has since become part of Merrill Lynch, said he felt that there was no “institutional memory” on Wall Street. Moments of crisis require that expanded perspective, and, as the museum’s founding shows, they also inspire it.

Once housed in a much smaller space at the United States Customs House (where it also had the more ponderous title of Museum of American Financial History), the institution has now come into its own, leasing 30,000 square feet of the former Bank of New York building. And since the nearby New York Stock Exchange has been closed to the public since Sept. 11, this museum may also become a de facto visitors’ center.

After $9 million in costs (and with a $3 million annual budget), the museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, now has a library and an auditorium, along with 10,000 square feet of exhibition space on what was once the imposing “private banking” mezzanine. It is a magisterial space, its grand murals celebrating American industrial achievements — powered, presumably, by the investments of many who once banked here.

Unfortunately, the bank was completed just before the 1929 market crash, which must have left many clients in straitened circumstances. But this museum is not shy about such vagaries in financial fortune. It sees its mission as both celebratory — paying tribute to the “American democratic open market system” — and educational, depicting just how that system evolved and the ways it works and sometimes falters.

So little is taught about this subject in the public schools, and so much still needs to be learned by those who have not quite figured out the nature of derivatives and other financial instruments, that the museum is both welcome in what it attempts and disappointing in how it falls short. In some cases it is too obvious (a wall display of the objects lying behind the trade of pork belly and grain futures doesn’t add much); in other cases too compressed (being taught about the nature of bonds is one thing, understanding junk bonds is something else).

There are other problems as well. We wait to see how all of this will congeal into a clear understanding of the ways American markets differ from others, or why capitalism, in this particular form, has become so immensely successful. There might also have been more exploration of the debates that have raged over the last 150 years. Winston Churchill’s quotation is left to speak for itself without commentary: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

What is needed is a better strategy for teaching something about the economic system — perhaps interactive displays outlining the way a market actually works. Instead too much space is devoted to freestanding touch-screen monitors offering extensive interviews with 16 entrepreneurs, including Robin Chase (Zipcar) and David G. Neeleman (JetBlue); many of these figures are far less interesting than what they accomplished. And there is such a thing as too much tribute: Citigroup gets an unnecessary, promotional display of objects and video, while a more detailed case history, demonstrating a single corporation’s successes and failures, risks and ventures, would be far more revealing.

So I hoped for more. The frustration is that this is not just a good story; it is a great story, an epic, and here it can be glimpsed only piecemeal. But there are so many fragments here, and so many compelling ones, that the individual parts actually end up greater than their sum. Unusual items from the museum’s 10,000-object collection range from early adding machines to the ticker tape detailing the plummeting prices of the 1929 crash; from a 1720 South Sea Company stock certificate signed by Isaac Newton, who lost his investment in a speculative “bubble” of the 18th century, to a check signed by John D. Rockefeller.

Some of the displays, designed by C&G Partners (which created the deft exhibits at the redesigned Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles), tell their story with humor, using touch screens to give the history of bank robbery, or showing a clip from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so that Jimmy Stewart can explain the virtues of a “savings and loan.” A small room devoted to the history of American money could have been twice as large and was easily the most coherent in the museum, aided by nearly $6 million in rare coins and bills and a 60-pound ingot from the California Gold Rush, found in a shipwreck. The armed guard outside that room served as a reminder of what this exhibition space once was.

Such sensations make the museum far less staid than it appears. What is shown again and again, in the charts and anecdotes, is how difficult a partner fortune can be (though Fortune — the magazine — exhibited in a display of some classic issues from the 1930s and ’40s, was clearly both lovely and powerful). The wheel of fortune is an ancient concept, and it can be seen revolving here, not just in the history of the room itself, but in tumultuous stories condensed into labels and objects. The distinctively American twist is the idea that the wheel can be manually turned — and that anybody can spin it, even though some results may be unexpected.

A board game from 1886 is like a do-it-yourself Horatio Alger story. “Game of the District Messenger Boy,” reads the faded box, “or Merit Rewarded.” Figures looking like racing Wall Street messengers move around the board as instructed by a spinning wheel: “Advance to District Manager,” reads one square; “Drowsiness, go back to Reprimand,” reads another.

Elsewhere we read of the “oracle of Omaha,” Warren E. Buffett — the only pupil of the renowned Columbia University economist Benjamin Graham to have ever earned an A+ in his graduate work — but also of “Enron’s (Mis)Managers” and of figures like William C. Durant, the founder of General Motors, who went from being a billionaire to (in the wake of the 1929 crash) becoming a dishwasher, running a bowling alley and selling a dandruff cure. Some wealth is created out of risk and labor; but so, too, is some poverty. Freedom has come from capital; so, too, has slavery. A scrap of paper becomes a fortune, and a fortune becomes worthless paper.

One display reminds us that Willie Sutton famously explained that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.” But we come to this former bank to see exactly what money is — and what America has made of it. That doesn’t really happen. But enough is seen so that money starts to seem less like a material object than like something more ethereal, affected by sea winds and psychology, faith and risk. And at this uncertain moment its mysterious powers seem all the more uncanny: it’s a perfect time to see it in action. This museum is not a bad place to start.

The Museum of American Finance is open Tuesdays through Saturdays at 48 Wall Street, Lower Manhattan; (212) 908-4110 or

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, TheArts, of Saturday, February 2, 2008., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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