British Museum blog

Putting a mobile phone behind glass

Pamoja women’s group displaying crafts made for sale in Kenya in 2011. © Ndunge Kiiti.Ellen Feingold, project curator, British Museum

Walking around the British Museum one often sees visitors using their mobile phones to communicate, photograph their favourite objects, and record memories of their visit. Yet some visitors might be surprised to see a mobile phone behind the glass of a display case. While mobile phones are familiar, contemporary and useful things, they are also fascinating artefacts in their own right, and help us tell a story of how they are not only transforming the way we communicate and document our experiences, but also how we spend and save money.

Mobile money services are currently emerging across the globe and gaining popularity, particularly in places with limited banking infrastructure. These services allow users to transfer money to individuals and businesses through their mobile phone networks, avoiding the need for banks and cash. A new display in the British Museum’s Citi Money Gallery explores mobile money services across Africa.

As one of the curators of this display, I was responsible for the section on Kenya, where mobile money was pioneered in 2007. Kenya’s first and leading mobile money service is called M-Pesa; the M stands for mobile and Pesa is a Kiswahili word for money. M-Pesa’s success in gaining customers in Kenya has been the subject both of scholarly research and media attention. So, for the new display, I decided to focus on how this new technology is currently used and is affecting the lives of its users in Kenya.

Pamoja women’s group displaying crafts made for sale in Kenya in 2011. © Ndunge Kiiti.

Pamoja women’s group displaying crafts made for sale in Kenya in 2011. © Ndunge Kiiti.

While developing the new display I found research by two Kenyan academics, Dr. Ndunge Kiiti and Dr. Jane Mutinda, who study how women’s groups in rural Kenya are using mobile money services and the impact these services have on the lives of group members. They have found that mobile money services are central to the efforts of these women’s groups to build small businesses, which they hope will help to reduce poverty as well as gender inequality in their communities.

Group members use mobile money services to make individual and group transactions as well as pay group dues, which serve as capital for investments in new business ventures, such as making crafts for sale.

After learning about their research, I contacted Dr. Kiiti and together we explored what objects would help to share this research with visitors. We agreed that a colourful mobile phone purse made by the Pamoja women’s group in Kenya would make an ideal addition to the display. The purse symbolises how access to mobile money services has facilitated the creation of new businesses, like the one that made and sold the purse. The purse also enables the continued use of mobile money services in Kenya because it makes it easy for women to carry their mobile phones with them wherever they go.

Mobile phone purse made for sale by Pamoja women’s group, Kenya, 2011, donated by Ndunge Kiiti.

Mobile phone purse made for sale by Pamoja women’s group, Kenya, 2011, donated by Ndunge Kiiti.

In addition to working with Dr. Kiiti, I sought the assistance of a researcher living in Nairobi, Dr. Gregory Deacon. He searched through shops and kiosks for objects that illustrate how mobile money services are accessed and advertised in everyday life.

Mobile money in Africa display in the Citi Money Gallery

Mobile money in Africa display in the Citi Money Gallery

One of the objects he sent me was a bottle-opener advertising a brand new mobile money product called M-Shwari. This product represents a new frontier in mobile money because it moves beyond basic transactions by giving users the ability to save and borrow money via their mobile phones. The M-Shwari bottle opener is included in the display because it signifies how rapidly mobile money services are evolving. Dr. Deacon also collected the objects that are essential for accessing mobile money services, namely SIM cards and a used mobile phone.

By putting the mobile phone Dr. Deacon collected behind glass, I hope that this display will help visitors to see mobile phones as objects that are not only useful for communicating and storing memories, but are also agents of economic and social change in Kenya and increasingly around the world.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery, Money in Africa, , , , ,

Researching ‘old’ as well as ‘new’ kinds of money in West Africa

Documents from 1931-33Sophie Mew, Project Curator, Money in Africa

I’ve been working on the Money in Africa research project to understand how coin and note currencies were introduced to the coastal regions of Africa and how their usage had spread widely by the close of the nineteenth century.

With two former British West African colonies, the Gold Coast (what is now known as Ghana) and Sierra Leone (one of the earliest British settlements on the coast), most of my research so far has been carried out at the National Archives in London, in Accra (Ghana) and in Freetown (Sierra Leone). In each place, I’ve consulted documents relating to a wide range of accounts about currencies. These included, for example, colonial despatches written by the governors of Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast and sent to the Secretaries of State in London; records that were created by and filed in the Treasury department in London, as well as diaries from merchants trading to West Africa.

Documents from the 1930s

Documents from 1931-33, PRAAD records

One of my early finds was a series of detailed instructions for traders on an expedition to the west coast of Africa in 1796. The Governor of Freetown at the time requested that the traders gather as much information as possible to understand what it was that locals preferred to trade with, at each stage, and at what value. At the National Archives in Ghana in June 2012, I found a series of similar despatches that were distributed to District Officers in 1944. Questions related to coins and notes and what they were used for, as they sought to gather information on the preferences of “the man on the street”. Responses suggested, for example, that people who could read preferred notes while labourers preferred coins. The 1/10th shilling was used as a counter for gambling in Obuasi, and notes could be inconvenient: the “average cloth wearing African was used to carrying his money tied up in a corner of his cloth with the result that notes became crumpled and torn, got wet and became pulp.”

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

I took my first trip to Sierra Leone in January 2013 where I researched the holdings of the branch of the National Archives, located on the University Campus (Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, is the oldest university in West Africa). At the top of a treacherously steep hill overlooking the city, I consulted lists of annual stipends that the British colonial government paid to local chiefs in exchange for leasing their land, and trawled through records of fines and fees paid to the colonial police to find out what currencies people were using and when.

In conjunction with my archival research for the Money in Africa project, I was also seeking information about the use of mobile money in Sierra Leone as part of a redisplay of an exhibition panel in the Citi Money Gallery. This display panel addresses the future of money and new technologies, and is updated every six months to showcase new studies.

As I questioned members of the public in Freetown, friends I had made, and staff members of mobile money companies, I understood the wariness that people have in trusting new kinds of money and the difficulties with trying out alternative systems. What I found fascinating here was that similar justifications for the practicality of using new coins and banknotes in the nineteenth century were being repeated to me within the contexts of mobile money in Sierra Leone today.

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Find out more about the Money in Africa project

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Discovering objects in the archives

counterfeit 1938 two shilling West African Currency Board coinEllen Feingold, Project Curator: Money in Africa, British Museum

When conducting archival research, historians look for documents that can help them to better understand people, events, and objects from the past. Rarely, however, does an historian looking through documents at archives come across objects inside files. It is even more unusual to discover objects that not only help to piece together an historical narrative, but are the subject of the research itself.

As a Project Curator for the Money in Africa project at the British Museum, I am conducting research on counterfeiting in British colonial Africa. One of the goals of my research is to understand how British colonial authorities thought about and responded to counterfeiting in colonial Africa during the twentieth century. A key source for this research is the Colonial Office files at the National Archives at Kew (UK). These files hold correspondence, memos, and internal minutes that have helped to shed light on how authorities in London reacted to counterfeiting across the British Empire.

Some of the correspondence in the archives is focused on keeping officials in the Colonial Office up-to-date with respect to recent counterfeiting cases and related issues in the colonies in Africa. Yet officials in the colonies not only wrote to the Colonial Office and Currency Boards in London about counterfeiting, they also sent evidence of the problem, including actual counterfeit notes and coins. These objects were small and light, typically encased in relatively plain envelopes. It seems that they have remained with the correspondence since the 1930s.

The obverse (left) and reverse (right) of a counterfeit 1938 two shilling West African Currency Board coin found at the National Archives (UK).

The obverse (left) and reverse (right) of a counterfeit 1938 two shilling West African Currency Board coin found at the National Archives (UK).

Finding these objects in the files was thrilling, not only because the experience of discovering objects in an archive is exceptional, but because of the unique way in which they can enhance my research. By examining the counterfeit notes and coins confiscated in West Africa in the 1930s, I am able to collect evidence to help me answer questions about counterfeiting in colonial Africa that documents alone cannot provide. For example, were these counterfeit notes and coins ‘good’ imitations of the legal tender? With access to the counterfeit coins and notes in the archives, I can compare them to the authentic legal tender held in the British Museum’s collection. This enables me to judge whether counterfeit currency specimen could have easily passed for legal tender or were poor imitations that could have been deemed fake by a person with an untrained eye. This information is useful in thinking about how counterfeits circulated and who detected them.

Furthermore, having found counterfeit currency opens up the possibility of querying what materials and tools people in the colonies used when making counterfeit coins and notes. Colonial authorities speculated about the means of production and materials, but finding and handling the counterfeit money allows me to consider whether their judgements were correct.

A cigarette case with the image of a 1934 twenty shilling note issued by the West African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

A cigarette case with the image of a 1934 twenty shilling note issued by the West African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

Though counterfeit notes and coins were the primary concern among colonial authorities, the Colonial Office was also worried about unauthorized use of images of British colonial currencies. In the 1930s, Japanese manufacturers produced silk handkerchiefs and cigarette cases that depicted West African Currency Board and East African Currency Board notes and exported them to African colonies (see images above and below). Upon learning about these items, colonial administrators sent samples to London, so that the Colonial Office and Currency Boards could decide whether they were a cause for alarm and how to curb their circulation in Africa.

A silk handkerchief with the image of a 1933 ten shilling note issued by the East African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

A silk handkerchief with the image of a 1933 ten shilling note issued by the East African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

A Japanese handkerchief depicting an East African Currency Board note was the first object I found in the archives. I was surprised to learn that the somewhat bland description of these handkerchiefs in the documents did not do them justice. Made from silk and dyed vibrant colours along the edges, it is easy to see their appeal to buyers.

Seeing the handkerchief raised many questions for me: Why were notes used as decoration? Who bought the handkerchiefs? What did the image of currency on the handkerchief mean to those who bought them? Did the presence of the note on the handkerchief matter to buyers or did the handkerchiefs circulate because they were colourful and attractive?

Though I will not be able to answer all of these questions with the evidence available, the discovery of this object in the archives, as well as the others, has served as a valuable reminder that while archival documents alone can tell a story, objects can enhance and even challenge that story in unexpected ways.

Note: after discovering these objects, I handed them to the National Archives information desk with the relevant files, so they could be examined by their staff.

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Find out more about the Money in Africa project

Filed under: Money in Africa, Research

Digging for tales of money in Kenya

Moi Avenue, NairobiKarin Pallaver, University of Bologna

As part of my work on the Money in Africa project I was in Nairobi, Kenya earlier this year to carry out archival research.

The aim of the project is to study the adoption, use and adaptation of coins and banknotes in Africa. As a historian my role is to study the transition from the pre-colonial to the colonial period. Which were the currencies used before colonisation? How did Africans react to the introduction of colonial coins? And how did they appropriate and sometimes remake colonial coins and notes? After a three-month research period in the National Archives in London, I hoped that studying the papers in the Kenya National Archives (KNA) would help find answers to these questions.

Moi Avenue, Nairobi.

Moi Avenue, Nairobi.

The archives are situated in the busy and crowded Moi Avenue in Nairobi city centre. Every day I walked there crossing Uhuru Park, the famous venue for political gatherings and a favourite destination for families at the weekend. The KNA has a detailed paper catalogue and computer database, but nonetheless, it took several days to master the intricacies of the cataloguing. The help of Mr. Richard Ambani was invaluable. He worked for many years as archivist at KNA and is now retired, but still comes everyday to the archives to help researchers. He is a sort of living catalogue; he knows the files by heart, their content and their location and helped find the documents I was looking for.

I decided to start my research with the annual and quarterly reports coming from the various districts of the East Africa Protectorate, starting from about 1900. What emerged from these reports is that money, in the sense of physical coins and notes, really mattered to colonial administrators. They wrote to Mombasa, the headquarters of the administration, reporting on the monetary practices of their subjects and suggesting strategies to induce them to use colonial coins and abandon cloth and beads.

What is more fascinating is that for a long period pre-colonial and colonial currencies co-existed, both for payments and for paying taxes. I found one report in which the author is talking about crocodile eggs accepted in payment for taxes. He gives the exact amount of crocodile eggs corresponding to the Hut Tax: 150.

The perspective I can get from these documents is rather different from that obtainable from those collected at the National Archives in London. Local administrators sent regular reports to Mombasa on what was happening in their districts, and these were then used to write general reports on the Protectorate which were sent to London. Local reports at KNA give therefore much more in depth information on what was going on locally and precious details on how Africans used colonial coins and notes. In Kikuyu district, for instance, the local administrator noted that in 1911 “nickel cents are occasionally used in place of washers for putting on corrugated iron roofing, being cheaper than zinc washers.”

These sorts of small details are essential in building up a broader picture of the role of money in colonial Africa and gave us plenty to work with back in London.

Find out more about the Money in Africa research project

Filed under: Money in Africa, Research

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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Filed under: Money in Africa, Research

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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Filed under: Money in Africa, Research, , ,

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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Filed under: Money in Africa, Research, , , , ,

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This is the next space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series looking at all the galleries in the Museum. Rooms 92–94 are the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries. Continuity and change have shaped Japanese material culture since ancient times. Through extensive cultural exchange, Japan has become a thriving modern, high-technology society while continuing to celebrate many elements of its traditional culture.
You can explore the art, religion, entertainment and everyday life of emperors, courtiers and townspeople in Rooms 92–94 through objects dating from ancient Japan to the modern period.
Artefacts range from porcelain and Samurai warrior swords, to woodblock prints and 20th-century manga comic books.
Historic tea ceremony wares can also be seen, alongside a reconstruction of a traditional tea house. Today’s #BMAdventCalendar – this struck bronze medal shows a nativity scene Four boys make a snowball in this Japanese woodblock print from today’s #BMAdventCalendar Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, set and filmed here, is now in cinemas across the UK! #NightAtTheMuseum This is Room 91, the next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. It's used for temporary exhibitions, usually from the Department of Asia. At the moment you can see the exhibition Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand (until 11 January 2015). Here’s some #mistletoe from today's #BMAdventCalendar – fancy a kiss?
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