British Museum blog

Mind your money: money matters

Heidi Hinder, artist and designer

Money. It doesn’t grow on trees and can’t buy you love or happiness, but apparently it makes the world go round. The subject of so many songs and clichés, money dominates and determines our life experience, even our identity.

Image 1_Mind your money

Coin design by New Horizon Youth Centre workshop participant. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

This much is obvious to those who attend the New Horizon Youth Centre, a London-based charity that supports homeless and at risk young people, and aims to help them create a more positive future for themselves. Part of New Horizon’s Social Enterprise Project offers young people the chance to improve on essential life skills, such as communication and confidence, by providing workshops in partnership with organisations like the British Museum, and with artists like myself.

So this was how a group of bright young people from New Horizon and I came to be gathered around a table in the British Museum, talking about money, with the Citi Money Gallery Education Manager, Mieka Harris, and the Curator of the Citi Money Gallery, Ben Alsop as part of the Citi Money Gallery Education Programme.

Our discussions were sparked off by some intriguing handling objects, selected by the curator from the Museum’s extensive collection of coins and currencies. As we lifted the lid on boxes of enigmatic artifacts, money started to appear in all sorts of unexpected guises, unusual materials, shapes and sizes. Large heavy crosses of copper weighed alongside tiny slivers of silver, and exotic shells rolled out next to green knives and pieces of fine silk cloth. The diversity of the designs was remarkable, highlighted by these examples of the different material forms that money has adopted throughout history and across the world. In each of these tokens, we glimpsed something of the time and culture that had originally issued them for commercial exchange.

00448364_001

Katanga Cross, formerly used as currency in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Made by Kuba in Katanga. H. 19 cm. British Museum Af1993,02.151

Image 3_Cowrie shells

Cowrie shells were historically traded as money. These were produced in West Africa. British Museum SSB,155.5

While no one in our group could imagine carrying shells in their wallet or swapping copper crosses for goods and services around London, the idea of money as a versatile designed object appealed to everyone. We took a closer look at our own contemporary currency, observing the intricate detail that ensures the designs are as secure as they are symbolic, and a powerful representation of our national identity.

Image 4_Bank notes design detail

A montage of macro images showing the detailed design of bank notes. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

Image 5_Coin design detail

Macro image of a five pence coin. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

Security and identity became relevant themes as one of the participants described how she had to scan her fingerprint to pay for food on account at her college canteen. This biometric payment method had been installed for convenience and safety, so that students would no longer need to carry cash. A contentious debate then ensued, as the New Horizon group questioned the control of our personal data, the anonymity of cash and the rise of cryptocurrencies, such as BitCoin. Was technology improving security, or just compromising our privacy?

I shared an example from my own work, which illustrates one instance where biometric transfers could arguably improve on current methods of economic exchange.

Image 6_Financial Growth

Financial Growth, bacteria on coin, by Heidi Hinder, 2013. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

This image, from a series of petri dish experiments called Financial Growth, reveals the bacteria present on coins and suggests that each time we make a cash transaction, we are exchanging more than just the monetary value and some tangible tokens. Hard currency could become a point of contagion.

Alternatively, I suggested to the group that technology has the potential to make money more personal, in a sociable and emotional way. Introducing my project called Money No Object, I demonstrated how a series of wearable technology prototypes could use social gestures as a method of making a payment or donating to charity. With technology tags embedded in gloves, rings, badges and shoes, the Money No Object wearables enable value to be transferred at the point of physical contact, by shaking hands, giving a high-five, hugging or even by tap-dancing on a giant coin with a pair of ‘Tap & Pay’ shoes.

Image 7_Money No Object High-Five demo

A participant from the New Horizon Youth Centre tries out some of the Money No Object prototypes with the ‘High-Five & Pay’ gloves (Photo: Ben Alsop)

The New Horizon group were keen to donate some fictional pounds by giving me some high-fives and watching their donations quickly add up on the corresponding info graphic – a live screen which records the total amount of donations in real time. The Money No Object project aims to encourage the frequency and level of charitable giving, by making the donation process sociable and entertaining. Judging by the grand total at the end of the high-five demo, the project achieved its purpose with this enthusiastic group!

So as we explored the increasing convergence of money, technology and identity, and recognised that money could incur a very personal exchange, I invited the group to express some of their ideas visually, by designing their own coins. What would they choose to represent if they were creating their own monetary tokens?

Image 8_New Horizon coin designs on paper

Coin design ideas by workshop participants. (Photo: Mieka Harris)

After sketching out some of their initial thoughts on paper, the group were given the chance to scribe these designs onto wax discs which would later be cast into bronze and displayed at the British Museum.

Image 9_New Horizon coin designs in wax

Coin designs inscribed into wax, ready for casting into bronze. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

From representations of surveillance and state control to symbols of infinity, freedom and love; from expressions of financial lack to being financially on track, the effects of money inscribed by the young people were insightful and revealing. Some coins humorously commented on the cost of living with the words ‘arm’ and ‘leg’ while other designs were abstract, like the very notion of money.

Experimenting with these newly-introduced skills of carving and scribing into casting wax, the New Horizon participants deftly worked the material to produce these highly creative results. You can already see some of these personal coin tokens, now cast into bronze, on show in the Citi Money Gallery, located in Room 68 of the British Museum, alongside a selection of the Money No Object wearable prototypes.

Image 10_New Horizon coin designs in bronze

Bronze tokens on display at the British Museum, designed by New Horizon Youth Centre. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

After such a fantastic day working with these brilliant young people from the New Horizon Youth Centre and inspiring staff from the British Museum, I am really excited to be continuing this collaboration over the coming months, and exploring the far-reaching significance of money.

 

The Citi Money Gallery and the Citi Money Gallery Education Programme are supported by Citi

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, Money Gallery, , , ,

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