What I’d put in my museum of the economic system


Above the Viking swords and skeletons, throughout from the enchanting show of classic dollhouses, Denmark’s Nationwide Museum accommodates a human-scale hamster wheel. Guests might climb inside, seize the controls and slowly, arduously, begin to stroll and jog. A digital display screen turns the treadmill right into a pizza-delivery recreation, providing the possibility to gather some digital money alongside the best way.

As a illustration of the grinding repetitiveness of a gig economic system job, the subtext is apparent. Until you’re aged 11, that’s. My son liked it.

The hamster wheel is a centrepiece of an exhibition all about cash and the economic system: KA-CHING — Present Me the Cash! Together with cash and banknotes, it has interactive quizzes, photographs of Damien Hirst’s “For The Love Of God” (that diamond-and-platinum cranium) and a video of musicians Jimmy Cauty and Invoice Drummond, aka The KLF, burning one million quid on a Hebridean island in 1994. (Alas, I observed no dialogue of the true worth of what Cauty and Drummond had been destroying; curious readers might choose up a replica of my ebook The Undercover Economist Strikes Again if they’re determined to know.)

All in all, KA-CHING! might be one of the best contender I’ve seen for a Museum of the Financial system. Then once more, there isn’t a lot competitors. I’ve lengthy fantasised about organising such an establishment, however evidently few curators agree. Whereas museums of science, know-how and pure historical past adorn nice cities everywhere in the world, museums of the economic system are uncommon.

A part of the issue is that economics tends to check massive, diffuse phenomena by means of an summary lens. Museums flourish when there’s one thing thrilling to have a look at, whether or not it’s a Spitfire or the skeleton of a T-Rex. Good luck placing “recession” or “funding mania” right into a glass show case. And so many economy-adjacent museums draw back from the central material.

The Financial institution of England Museum, for instance, is nice sufficient — spacious, elegant, free to enter — however its topic is actually the Financial institution of England itself. There are exhibitions concerning the constructing’s structure, the heroes and slave-trading villains who paced its corridors and, after all, cash and banknotes and an awesome huge gold bar inside a Perspex field — you may attain in by means of a gap and attempt to choose it up. (Copenhagen’s KA-CHING! exhibit provides virtually precisely the identical Perspex-cased gold-bar-hefting expertise.)

A brand new ebook, Making Economics Public, features a chapter describing the Financial system Museum of the Federal Reserve Financial institution of St Louis. The Financial system Museum tries to debate and exhibit financial concepts past cash. There’s an exhibit about alternative and alternative value, an eight-player simulation of a buying and selling pit, a recreation of barter. It sounds enjoyable, even when the museum does additionally include a type of accursed lift-the-gold-bar reveals.

May we do higher? Maybe. After I created my books and radio sequence Fifty Issues That Made The Trendy Financial system, my purpose was to point out the hidden financial forces round us by refracting them by means of on a regular basis innovations. Not all of them examine favourably with a T-Rex, alas. I’m unsure how one would put “the welfare state” in a museum. Maybe a waxwork of William Beveridge would do?

Nor does the index fund lend itself to an exhibit, even when the thought was as soon as praised by the good economist Paul Samuelson as an invention to face alongside “the wheel, the alphabet, Gutenberg printing, and wine and cheese”.

However different objects are extra promising. The V&A correctly acquired Thomas Thwaites’s “Toaster Venture” — a bodily report of his doomed makes an attempt to construct himself a working toaster, beginning with the seek for uncooked supplies. It brilliantly illustrates, by counterexample, the decentralised genius required to construct a mass-market product; maybe my nascent Museum of the Financial system might organize a mortgage from the V&A.

In that case, I’d additionally beg the Science Museum for his or her Moniac, a tremendous hydraulic laptop designed to simulate the British economic system. I’d pair it with a quick description of the lifetime of its inventor, Invoice Phillips, who had extra adventures than Indiana Jones.

Maybe somebody might be persuaded to provide a cuneiform pill from Mesopotamia; because of the work of archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat, we now imagine these tablets to exemplify the simultaneous improvement of contracts, accounts, arithmetic and writing itself, all in service of an more and more advanced city economic system.

Scarcely cheaper can be a printer ink cartridge, the right introduction to concepts equivalent to two-part pricing and switching prices.

A tulip might function a springboard for a dialogue of economic manias, however a steam locomotive from York’s Nationwide Railway Museum could be extra traditionally correct. It’s also one of many few reveals which may beat even a T-Rex for the power to encourage sheer awe.

For instance the evils of capitalism, maybe a Bonsack machine — an invention to effectively produce the deadliest product in human historical past, the cigarette. And on the extra cheerful facet, Norman Borlaug’s starvation-fighting dwarf wheat, and an interactive show displaying how lengthy an individual has to work to afford an hour’s price of excellent gentle, from the oil lamp (days) to the LED (seconds).

There’s extra we might do, I’m certain. So should you occur to have an empty exhibition area, pals in South Kensington and one million quid to burn, we should always speak.

Written for and first printed within the Monetary Instances on 14 July 2023.

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