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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Researching ‘old’ as well as ‘new’ kinds of money in West Africa

Documents from 1931-33Sophie Mew, Project Curator, Money in Africa

I’ve been working on the Money in Africa research project to understand how coin and note currencies were introduced to the coastal regions of Africa and how their usage had spread widely by the close of the nineteenth century.

With two former British West African colonies, the Gold Coast (what is now known as Ghana) and Sierra Leone (one of the earliest British settlements on the coast), most of my research so far has been carried out at the National Archives in London, in Accra (Ghana) and in Freetown (Sierra Leone). In each place, I’ve consulted documents relating to a wide range of accounts about currencies. These included, for example, colonial despatches written by the governors of Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast and sent to the Secretaries of State in London; records that were created by and filed in the Treasury department in London, as well as diaries from merchants trading to West Africa.

Documents from the 1930s

Documents from 1931-33, PRAAD records

One of my early finds was a series of detailed instructions for traders on an expedition to the west coast of Africa in 1796. The Governor of Freetown at the time requested that the traders gather as much information as possible to understand what it was that locals preferred to trade with, at each stage, and at what value. At the National Archives in Ghana in June 2012, I found a series of similar despatches that were distributed to District Officers in 1944. Questions related to coins and notes and what they were used for, as they sought to gather information on the preferences of “the man on the street”. Responses suggested, for example, that people who could read preferred notes while labourers preferred coins. The 1/10th shilling was used as a counter for gambling in Obuasi, and notes could be inconvenient: the “average cloth wearing African was used to carrying his money tied up in a corner of his cloth with the result that notes became crumpled and torn, got wet and became pulp.”

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

I took my first trip to Sierra Leone in January 2013 where I researched the holdings of the branch of the National Archives, located on the University Campus (Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, is the oldest university in West Africa). At the top of a treacherously steep hill overlooking the city, I consulted lists of annual stipends that the British colonial government paid to local chiefs in exchange for leasing their land, and trawled through records of fines and fees paid to the colonial police to find out what currencies people were using and when.

In conjunction with my archival research for the Money in Africa project, I was also seeking information about the use of mobile money in Sierra Leone as part of a redisplay of an exhibition panel in the Citi Money Gallery. This display panel addresses the future of money and new technologies, and is updated every six months to showcase new studies.

As I questioned members of the public in Freetown, friends I had made, and staff members of mobile money companies, I understood the wariness that people have in trusting new kinds of money and the difficulties with trying out alternative systems. What I found fascinating here was that similar justifications for the practicality of using new coins and banknotes in the nineteenth century were being repeated to me within the contexts of mobile money in Sierra Leone today.

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