British Museum blog

Bitcoin: how do we display the intangible?

bitcoin minerBenjamin Alsop, curator, British Museum

The Citi Money Gallery charts over four millennia’s worth of monetary history. The Department of Coins and Medals cares for over one million objects in the Museum’s collection and like any museum with a growing collection, the most pressing questions are what should we collect and where should we put it all? Yet a recent concern for me as the curator of the Citi Money Gallery is not which objects should I select from our vast collection for a new display, but whether we had any suitable objects at all. This may sound like the murmurings of an eccentric curator, but let me explain myself.

Bitcoin token, designed by Mike Caldwell (CM 2012,4040.4)

Bitcoin token, designed by Mike Caldwell (CM 2012,4040.4)

If the gallery is to be a record of the changing nature and form of money through the ages, then it is just as important to reflect the modern world as it is ancient Greece or Rome. Modern technologies, and in particular their application, are having huge effects on the world of finance but also on society in general. As a result it would be remiss of the gallery not to discuss a particular current monetary phenomenon. I speak of course about ‘cryptocurrencies’, digital de-centralised currencies which began with the invention of Bitcoin in 2009. Since its opening in summer 2012, the Citi Money Galley has always had a bitcoin token on display, made by the software developer Mike Caldwell.

However this is really just a token for the collectors’ market, a physical manifestation of something which was never intended to exist in a tangible way. So the display at first did seem rather tricky, tricky but not impossible. Objects are at the very heart of everything we do at the Museum and while we couldn’t display a real ‘bitcoin’, there was a wealth of other material culture which could help tell the story.

The paper ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System‘ published in 2009 seemed to be the sensible place to start. Written by the unknown (although not so unknown if you are to believe an article in Newsweek magazine) Satoshi Nakamoto, it brought to the world’s attention a possible new form of currency and so is included in the display.

Bitcoin miner USB stick

Bitcoin miner USB stick

Record of the first bitcoin block mined

Record of the first bitcoin block mined

While Bitcoin is the most well known of the cryptocurrencies it has spawned over one hundred other purely electronic cash systems since its creation. The major thing that these currencies have in common is that they are created using complex computing. To this end a bitcoin mining machine (pictured above) is displayed in the gallery with a record of the first Bitcoin block mined on 3 January 2009.

Dogecoin logo, designed by Christine Ricks

Dogecoin logo, designed by Christine Ricks

Bitcoin Magazine Issue 16: To the Moon (November)

Bitcoin Magazine Issue 16: To the Moon (November)

One of the most interesting aspects of cryptocurrencies is that at the moment their use is as much a lifestyle choice as an economic one. You only need to look at the logo of ‘Dogecoin‘ to see that while Bitcoin and its descendants are a serious attempt to offer alternatives to traditional currencies, there is playfulness at work. Attempts to popularise and promote Bitcoin use similarly arresting graphic designs and so the inclusion of Bitcoin Magazine into the display adds colour and imagery.

For all the evident ingenuity at play, much of the negative press surrounding Bitcoin is as a result of its unpredictability. A look at its price from a height of over US$1000 in December 2012 to its current price hovering around US$450, is evidence of this fluctuation. The final object on display is at first glance rather straight forward. It is a Smile Bank account document recording the transfer of pounds sterling from a British bank account to a Bitcoin exchange in Japan. The exchange was called Mt. Gox, the largest exchange in existence in 2013, handling around 70% of all bitcoin transactions. However, in February 2014 Mt Gox filed for bankruptcy after declaring the loss of over 650,000 bitcoins. How this vast amount was lost, an amount worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the time, is still being investigated. The plainness of the document hides a cautionary tale about the volatility of all financial investments.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

If you have any thoughts on what other objects would help tell the story of Bitcoin or cryptocurrencies generally, please tell us about them in the comments. To leave a comment click on the title

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This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge...’
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Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum
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