British Museum blog

Observation to object: bringing a small piece of fieldwork back to the British Museum

Making a Savings and Loans boxMaxim Bolt, researcher, British Museum

I have spent the last few months on fieldwork in Blantyre, Malawi for the Money in Africa project at the British Museum. I have been investigating how money is used on the ground: how people handle it, and its role in social relationships. One way I did this was to attend Savings and Loans (S&L) group meetings in peripheral areas of the city. Whether in the yard of someone’s house, a vacant room in a trading centre or a free classroom in a school, these meetings are highly ritualised settings for the handling of money. The example of one meeting will help illustrate how they work.

One group meets in the yard of Mrs Phiri, the custodian of their strongbox, in which records, calculator and money are kept – a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) provides the basic equipment. Mrs Phiri makes a living producing a non-alcoholic, fermented drink from maize and millet, and selling it. Her house, part of a settlement on the edge of the city, is half way down a steep valley, the top of the slope dominated by a church, and the bottom by a stream in which residents wash clothes.

The group, like many others, is all women – I was told that men have less patience for the meetings, and for the collaboration in business that such meetings represent. Many of the women also have more marginal positions in the economy than many men, and collaboration in the groups helps address this. All members are small-scale businesspeople, such as street vendors, owners of small restaurants, and charcoal burners.

Monthly or bimonthly meetings have variable turnout: some members have to look after their crops, others are occupied with important visits to hospital, and others again may stay away after a hard month, because they have no money to contribute to the group. Members trickle in, and eventually Mrs Ndhlovu, the chairwoman, calls for the meeting to start. A reed mat is laid out in the yard, so that the women do not have to sit on the bare earth. And the strongbox, containing records, calculator and cash bags, is brought out. After a prayer, the group is ready to begin.

Proceedings commence with a call for small contributions to a social fund (MK20, or about 8p). There may also be small fines for being late. Contributions are presented to Mrs Phiri and her neighbour in the circle, the money counter. They, in turn, place the notes and coins in a plastic tub, on display to everyone. After all members have contributed, the serious business of buying shares begins. The value of shares has been decided at MK500 (or about £2), and each member in turn buys between one and ten shares each time (or pleads lack of disposable funds), thus continually increasing the group’s capital base. The money is then used to lend to members for their everyday needs – they can each borrow to the value of the shares they have bought. Each member’s share purchase is publicly recognised, as banknotes are handed over and placed in the tub in the middle of the circle. At some meetings, applause greets contributions, as it does loan repayments and the tallying of grand totals. Indeed, this ritual keeps members contributing, even though some have little to give. The interest from loans and the social fund are put in dedicated bags, to be stored in the strongbox. The money from share purchases is taken straight to the bank, with transport paid out of the social fund.

Making a Savings and Loans box

Making a Savings and Loans box

What is all this for, and what does it tell us?

To make what is perhaps an obvious point, members are just borrowing back their own money. So why bother? At the end of a year, a sizeable money pot is divided between members, according to the proportion of shares they hold in the group. The whole scheme is a way to enforce saving. And the loans offer access to cash during the year, while adding interest to the final saved amount. When groups work well, members are left with tidy lump sums each year. To many small businesspeople, especially women, such socially enforced saving is attractive, and it keeps cash away from the competing demands of family members. I even know women elsewhere in Blantyre who are trying to sign up to such a scheme. What all this shows us is how crucial it is to understand the handling of money in social situations, if we want to grasp how it is thought about, used and saved.

What, from such fieldwork, could be brought back to the British Museum? S&L strongboxes neatly tell us things about the groups that use them. Constructed from robust metal plate with a handle on the lid, such a box has three padlocks, so that four members (three key holders and a box keeper) must be present to open it. A compartment holds the calculator, members’ record books and fund bags. Another compartment has a corresponding slot in the lid, so that, between meetings, members can make contributions (they deposit money, along with pieces of paper identifying them and specifying the amount). The box’s unlocking and relocking represent the beginning and end of each meeting. In a sense, therefore, it stands for the group itself.

Bringing such a box to the Museum comes with its own, distinctive challenges. Each is purpose built, so the first thing was to find a tinsmith with experience making such objects. A fieldworker from the NGO that established the Savings and Loans groups I attended introduced me to Word Of God tinsmith, located in an informal market. But this particular box was going to be different from any other that the tinsmith, Pastor Peter, had made. Faced with constraints on space in the redisplayed Money gallery back at the Museum, I commissioned a box with the same basic design as those generally used, but only 15 cm deep.

After some consideration, Pastor Peter proposed a design. The hinge was placed inside the box to allow it to open within this space, and the front lock pointed upwards rather than forwards – a model of space-efficiency! Pastor Peter got to work, buying used plate metal, hinges, and silver paint to finish off the job and prevent rust. Sat on a lorry’s hubcap, he beat the reclaimed scrap metal into shape on a piece of rail, visiting a welder close by in the market when necessary. Soon, an S&Lstrongbox, perfectly suited to the British Museum’s needs, was ready to be wrapped up and put in the post.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of those discussed in this post in accordance with ethical research practice

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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