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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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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