British Museum blog

Finding out how money actually works


Maxim Bolt, researcher, British Museum

I am the anthropologist on the British Museum’s Money in Africa project. I have come to Malawi, in central-southern Africa, to explore how money actually works – in action, outside the glass-fronted cases of our gallery in the Museum.

Maxim Bolt, right, conducting research in Southern Africa on a previous project

Maxim Bolt, right, conducting research in Southern Africa on a previous project

Living and spending time with people in Blantyre, the country’s economic hub, I am learning about how people handle their cash. And, in a country where more and more people have bank accounts, I am learning what people use them for.

This might all sound obvious, but here are a few quick first impressions that point to differences from what UK readers might be familiar with. The highest value banknote – 500 Malawian Kwacha (MK500) – is big, colourful, covered in elaborate security features, and often brand new. It looks and feels high value. But it is worth about £2, and large payments involve thick wads of notes (plastic cards are almost never used). Meanwhile, although the cost of a newspaper is MK200, people use the battered MK20 and MK50 notes all the time. Public transport in mini-buses, for example, costs MK50 or MK70. As I quickly discovered, all this means a lot of paper.

And bank accounts? Considering all the paper, it is maybe unsurprising that, for some businesspeople I have met in Blantyre’s poorer, high-density urban areas, bank accounts offer protection against losing everything in a household fire, or a robbery. For others, bank accounts take all of those banknotes out of the everyday politics of family life. As I get to know these and other people better during my three months here, I hope to discover more about their concerns and goals. And I hope to understand the effects of people taking their cash out of their homes and businesses.

My research in its early days has taken me to poor urban areas and wealthy suburbs, to the streets of the city centre and to a peri-urban settlement (a settlement adjoining an urban one) built on the steep banks of a small stream. As I gradually learn more about the everyday realities of money in Malawi, I will be updating this blog, and would welcome any comments or questions. Hopefully, my posts will give you a sense of how wide-ranging the British Museum’s research is.

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4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Having been to Egypt a few times I am familiar with `well used` notes in circulation.
    God help you if the only note you have has been torn and not carefully sellotaped back together, it may not be accepted.
    The problem that many people in Egypt have, is to open a bank account you must have some sort of ID, to get that you must have a place of abode and be registered. This will open up another whole can of worms, like where do you work, who do you work for, do you pay taxes, if not why not? To say nothing of the same questions being asked of your employer.

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  2. Maxim Bolt says:

    @Stewart Herring, thank you for this example from Egypt. Many of the people I know who have bank accounts are small businesspeople who get microfinance loans – I suspect these are people in rather different circumstances to those you refer to in Egypt. But, for many, there are doubtless very similar concerns to those you describe.

    As for the well-worn banknotes: there are some very, very battered pieces of paper circulating. But equally noticeable is the number of freshly printed notes. The contrast between old and new is quite marked, to say the least. And certainly when it comes to the highest value banknote, MK500 (around £2), they tend to be in good condition, and often noticeably crisp.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Maxim Bolt
    Researcher, Money in Africa
    The British Museum

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  3. I think that’s true to some extent. we need to keep in mind that I feel that, to begin with, the Egyptian people have been going through decades of economic hardship, poverty. And in a sense, thus they are completely disempowered.

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  4. Stewart Herring says:

    Of course there are the micro-finance loans that generally go unrecognised.
    For example, a friend of mine has many little businesses, one of them is that he sells blankets. I’ve seen that people come to his house and pay a little at a time and he always notes it down in his little cash book. To us, that may be hire purchase but to you that is probably called microfinanace

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The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 67: Korea. The Korea Foundation Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen on 16 December 2014. You can find out more about the refurb at koreabritishmuseum.tumblr.com  The unique culture of Korea combines a strong sense of national identity with influences from other parts of the Far East. Korean religion, language, geography and everyday life were directly affected by the country’s geographic position, resulting in a rich mix of art and artefacts.
Objects on display in Room 67 date from prehistory to the present day and include ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, painting, screen-printed books and illuminated manuscripts.
A reconstruction of a traditional sarangbang, or scholar’s study, is also on display and was built by contemporary Korean craftsmen. This is Room 66, Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
By the 4th century AD, Christianity was flourishing in both Egypt and Ethiopia. Christian Egyptians became known as the Copts (from the Greek name for Egyptians) and the church maintained strong links with its Ethiopian counterparts. Since antiquity, Ethiopia had been a major trade route, linking Egypt and the Mediterranean with India and the Far East.
The resulting history of cultural exchange and religious diversity is illustrated through objects in Room 66, which reflect the faiths and identities which coexisted in Egypt and Ethiopia. Objects from towns, monasteries and settlements range from decorated textiles and architectural elements to sculpture and ceramics. It's time for our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery. This is Room 65, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Sudan, Egypt and Nubia. Ancient Nubia, the Nile Valley upstream of the First Cataract, now straddles the border between Egypt and Sudan. Rich and vibrant cultures developed in this region at the same time as Pharaonic Egypt. Among them was the earliest sub-Saharan urban culture in Africa, which was based at Kerma.
These cultures traded extensively with Egypt and for two brief periods Nubian kingdoms dominated their northern neighbour.
The objects on display in Room 65 illustrate these indigenous pagan, Christian and Islamic cultures and the interaction between Nubia and Egypt. This is our next gallery space in the #MuseumOfTheFuture series. It's Room 64, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Early Egypt. Rapid advances in the technology and social organisation of Egypt during the 5th millennium BC produced a material culture of increasing sophistication. Further innovations followed in about 3100 BC when the separate Predynastic peoples of Upper and Lower Egypt were united under a single ruler. The resulting increase in wealth and strong central control led to dramatic achievements in architecture, writing and fine goods, culminating in the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza in around 2600 BC.
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See this cartonnage mask in our exhibition #8mummies – now extended until 19 April 2015.
#MummyMonday #mummies
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