British Museum blog

Navigating currency on the corner

Maxim Bolt, researcher, British Museum

What does researching money – on the ground – actually involve? Recently, in my ongoing fieldwork in Malawi, it has involved a lot of time in The Corner Salon (this is a pseudonym, in the sense that I made it up, as it is ethical research practice to keep subjects studied anonymous), a small, wooden structure painted in the bright colours of a mobile phone operator. This may be a little surprising. But, unlike practitioners of many other social sciences – with their broad coverage and formal methods like survey questionnaires – anthropologists attempt to get in deeper. This means getting to know, personally, the people whose lives we are learning about.

For the Money in Africa project, it means coming to understand the monetary priorities and concerns of Malawian businesspeople themselves. It means appreciating how The Corner’s owners – sisters Yami and Flora (also pseudonyms) – navigate their salon through Malawi’s current foreign exchange shortage.

The city of Blantyre, Malawi

The city of Blantyre, Malawi

The Corner is in a high-density residential area of Blantyre, Malawi’s economic hub, and the salon is facing hard times. The economy has been badly hit by recent foreign exchange shortages – the result partly of donor funding cuts – and people are more careful about spending their money. But for Yami and Flora, the difficulties run much deeper. The sisters used to buy their hair extensions, straightener, and conditioner in South Africa, but it has become much harder to acquire South African Rand. They have turned to buying from Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, because it is easier to buy Tanzanian shillings.

But even this is no simple matter. Yami currently relies on her husband’s import-export business for transport. He cannot make another trip until he has sold his current stock, yet another challenge in Malawi’s climate of uncertainty. Yami worries that she will not have stock in time for her Christmas clientele. Flora, meanwhile, is considering returning to South Africa, to return to her earlier employment there as a domestic worker. At least that way, she reasons, she can remit her earnings in the form of hair products, keeping the salon in stock. This is, of course, a great way to sidestep the foreign exchange problem. But Yami is worried. The departure will break up the salon’s team, leaving her alone with the business, as well as her own and Flora’s children.

This is a story about two sisters’ business, and their attempts to import hair products. But, through it, we can begin to understand what monetary problems look like in reality, today, as small businesspeople navigate the region’s different currencies. Such a perspective is key to the British Museum’s Money in Africa project, which investigates money in action, beyond the glass cases of the Museum. The results of this research will be drawn together in a broad-ranging, comparative, collaborative and multidisciplinary study.

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You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!

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