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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4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Perhaps the most interesting feature of Mike Caldwell’s physical coin is found on the reverse side of the coin you have pictured. There you can find the public address of the bitcoin. Anyone can check the balance at that address and watch if the bitcoin is ever “spent”. Why not display the back side of the coin here on the blog? In addition, if museumgoers fancy it, they can send their own bitcoins to the public address on the coin, thus increasing the curiosity of the coin itself.

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    • Hi Mike. We have deliberately avoided publishing an image of the reverse. We found that people were using the address to make donations to the Museum. While altruistic, the tokens are in fact registered objects in the collection, and we are unable to access the Bitcoins that people donate because it would mean destroying the holographic strip, resulting in damage to the object. To discourage people from donating (and in effect wasting their money) we now only publish images of the obverse. For the moment, people can still support the Museum by donation, but only in traditional currency! Tom Hockenhull, curator, British Museum.

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      • Perhaps those aren’t donations but transactions of a different character? I know of few other museum pieces where the viewer can directly increase (and not decrease) the value of the piece and do so anonymously. While I agree that you should keep the hologram intact, I don’t believe the people sending that address money are necessarily under the impression they are donating to the museum. In a way, sending money to the address on the back of the coin shows just how transcendent bitcoin can be as a medium of exchange– after all, the value cannot be contained within the walls of a museum if you just turned the coin around! It’s a disservice to the public to not show the back of the coin. Would you drain the Trevi Fountain to discourage a happy couple from wasting their money on a wish?

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  2. Reblogged this on CUA CHIM and commented:
    A really fascinating concept from a curatorial perspective: neo/crypto-numismatics and how to curate objects that are, by their very definition, intangible. As we move ever forward towards an increasingly digital landscape, how do we develop curatorial methodology and foundations for something with no true instantiation?

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