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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This beautiful photograph taken by @miracca shows a detail of the decoration on the South Stairs of the Museum. The patterns and colours on the walls and ceilings near the entrance to the Museum were inspired by classical Greek buildings, which would have been brightly decorated. #regram #repost #architecture #decoration 
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum To celebrate #NAIDOC week, we’re sharing some of the amazing objects from #IndigenousAustralia.
Spearthrowers like these are the Swiss army knife of the desert. Created and used exclusively by men, the broad body of these spearthrowers hints at its other functions. Its firm edges were used for digging in the desert sand and scraping the ground in preparing a place to sleep. Those same hardwood edges were sawed furiously against softer wood, to create the smouldering embers by which desert people made fire. In some parts of Australia stone knives were hafted to its end with natural resins, allowing the spearthrower to also be used for butchering animals and as a chisel for engraving other objects.
#NAIDOCWeek #art It's #NAIDOC2015 – a week celebrating the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We’ll be sharing objects each day this week from our #IndigenousAustralia exhibition.
This masterpiece of Indigenous art is called 'Yumari' and is on loan from the National Museum of Australia. It was created by the artist Uta Uta Tjangala in 1981 and is a highlight of the exhibition. Tjangala was one of the artists who initiated the translation of sand sculptures and body painting onto canvas at Papunya in 1971, making him a pioneer of contemporary Australian art. This iconic work now features on the Australian passport.
#NAIDOC #art #painting This wonderful photo by @cnorain captures the roof of the Great Court, which includes 3,312 glass panels. Each one is unique as the space is asymmetrical.
#regram #repost #architecture

Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum For #ThrowbackThursday this photograph from 1875 shows the Museum’s first Egyptian Room.
This is one of a collection of photographs taken by the photographer Frederick York of Notting Hill, London in 1875.
#tbt #throwback #archives #mummies We’re delighted to announce our first exhibition of the autumn ‘Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns’, which opens 10 September.
This exhibition will feature around 100 of the best examples of #metalpoint spanning six centuries. Metalpoint is a challenging drawing technique where a metal stylus is used on a roughened preparation, ensuring that a trace of the metal is left on the surface. When mastered it can produce drawings of crystalline clarity and refinement.
This exhibition was organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington @ngadc in association with the British Museum.
Book your tickets now to see these spectacular works! #art #drawing #Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Bust of a warrior. Silverpoint, on prepared paper, c. 1475-1480.
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