British Museum blog

The present and future of money


Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

When people think of the British Museum, images of antiquities are often part of what springs to mind. In fact, we collect and display modern and contemporary material, and the exhibition by Grayson Perry that has just opened is a great example of the ways that a contemporary artist can engage with our historic collections.

You might have read in the news a couple of weeks ago about the Google Wallet trial in New York, or about new mobile payment systems that are being developed in countries around the world. In the UK, debates about whether to phase out payments by cheque are still ongoing, but it seems clear that we’re in a period when what money is and how we use it is going to change substantially.

Reports of the death of cash have, though, probably been greatly exaggerated. The new technologies have some way to go before they can compete with the anonymous convenience of coins and notes for many people and for many transactions.

Earlier this year, I was at the Digital Money Forum, and a group of artists were asked to imagine what the future of money might look like. The winner has since developed a video that creates a fictional scenario looking at ideas of money and anonymity (warning: contains language which some may find offensive), and what could happen if all payments were digital and all could be traced.

A mobile phone

Mobile phones are increasingly used to make payments and transfers

For some people, the biggest concern isn’t anonymity, but more basic concerns about security, and I’ve had some really interesting conversations with a group of researchers who are studying money in Haiti. There, because of the risks involved in carrying cash around, the use of mobile phones to make payments is increasing, fast. People are also using digital transfers to keep their money safe while they are moving around.

As we develop the Money gallery, the challenge is not just how to display this – how to collect and put into an exhibition things that are electronic – but also how to make sure that the modern sections of the gallery can change during the lifetime of the displays.

Whatever happens, I think it’s clear that the next five years will see big changes, and we will need to create content for a permanent display that can reflect them. For more on this, have a listen to the Digital Money podcast I did a couple of months ago.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

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