Museum of American Finance

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 93 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned During World War II, Disney created character-driven U.S. war bonds to encourage the kiddies to contribute to the effort to “make life free and forever peaceful for all men.”

Museum of American Finance

Museum of American FinanceI give the curators of the Museum of American Finance credit for chutzpah, anyway.  In this day and age,  a museum that lionizes financiers and the financial system seems tantamount to, I don’t know, a museum of baby harp seal clubbers.

That said, if you’re going to have a museum (or, as they style it, a MU$EUM) of American finance, there can be no better place for it than Wall Street.  And no better place on Wall Street than in the Bank of New York’s former Grand Mezzanine.

The 1927 Bank of New York Building, at Wall and William Streets, is the third on the site.  The original Bank of New York in that spot dates to 1796, about a decade after Alexander Hamilton and a coterie of America’s other financial founding fathers started it.  

Museum of American Finance
Now
Museum of American Finance
Then

The Museum of American Finance was founded by a banker named John Herzog in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash.  Herzog started his “museum project” (touché!) to create an institution to explain how the financial system worked. He reckoned that although Wall Street is synonymous with finance, most folks don’t really know what goes on there outside of movies.

Financial Organization and Technology

The museum divides and conquers its huge topic.  It devotes much space to three main topics:  stocks, commodities and their associated futures and options, and bonds.  And the exchanges for each.  There’s a bit about what each type of instrument is, what it represents, and who trades them and how.  Video interviews with actual traders help humanize each of the pillars of the financial system.

Museum of American Finance

Museum of American Finance

But the museum is also a museum of technology, speaking to ticker tape machines and the many many intermediate steps between them and today’s Bloomberg terminals.  It’s also got one of the first handheld terminals used to automate trading at the New York Stock Exchange, which looks enormous.

It speaks to the financial system of one continually impacted by information and information technology.  That has only accelerated since the museum’s founding, as finance becomes ever more virtual and digital.

Hamilton Gets a Room

Part of MOAF’s mission is to celebrate Alexander Hamilton’s role in shaping the American financial system.  Indeed, the museum dedicates a whole room to Hamilton’s legacy. It includes a capsule biography, and some original documents related to payments, requisitions, and the fledgling U.S.’s assumption of state war debts.  It’s a good, if brief, bit of Hamiltoniana.  The museum’s audio guide all but plays songs from the Broadway musical.  And it’s capped off with the following Hamilton quote:

“A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing.”

Museum of American Finance
The A.Ham Room

Other personalities shine here, too.  Mostly, surprisingly, bad guys.  Ivan Boesky, Bernie Madoff, William Duer (the first insider trader in U.S. history), and assorted bank robbers are all present.  Along with entrepreneurs, ordinary traders, and plutocrats like J.P. Morgan, who saved the financial system when he wasn’t busy buying items for his library.

Wall of Dollars

Museum of American Finance

Across the way from Hamilton’s room, the museum features an alcove lined with U.S. banknotes of every size, vintage, and denomination, right up to Salmon P. Chase on the $10,000 bill.  

From time immemorial rappers have fixated on the acquisition of dead presidents.  But really, dead Secretaries of the Treasury are worth more. 

The museum deploys terrific, large touchscreen displays that let visitors zoom in on and get the story of any of the banknotes on display.  I found it captivating.  I’ll relate just one here:

During World War II, the government printed the word “Hawaii” on banknotes circulating there.  The idea being that if the Japanese invaded, the U.S. could disavow all Hawaiian greenbacks, rendering them worthless.

Temporary Exhibitions

The Museum of American Finance also hosts temporary shows. One currently looks at “treasures from the vaults” of the museum. These include examples of “deal toys,” the silly commemorative lucite or plastic doo-dads traders would give out to celebrate a company going public.  It also displays a stupendously blingy solid gold monopoly set.

Museum of American Finance

More impressively, the museum has a small show called “For the Love of Money:  Blacks on US Currency.”  MOAF credits the Museum of Uncut Funk for this show, which intrigues me mightily.  What is this museum, and how do I get there?  The exhibition itself is mighty informative and eye-opening, including mainly commemorative coins and medals for prominent African Americans.  

The U.S. has had one circulating coin that features a prominent African American. That’s Duke Ellington, on the back of the D.C. commemorative quarter.  Prior to Ellington, two other state quarters had anonymous African Americans in tiny, supporting roles.  I’m surprised that there’s been one at all, even if it’s just the reverse of the state quarter of a not-quite-a-state.

Museum of Antique American Finance

I liked this museum.  What it did, it did well.  The Room of Hamilton and the Alcove of Currency both earned my admiration, as did “Blacks on U.S. Currency.”  That said, at the end of the day MOAF struck me more for the stories it didn’t tell than for the stories it did.

In its way this museum is as crazily anachronistic as the Mossman Lock Collection.  And while I’m willing to say that antique locks can merit a visit, I’m not so sure about the antiquated view of the financial system this museum presents. 

The story the Museum of American Finance tells of bears and bulls doesn’t speak to the causes of the 2008 crash.  It ignores all the titanic (ship metaphor strongly intended) forces reshaping the financial world today.  Things like: the poorly understood repackaging of risk into ever zanier and harder-to-analyze derivatives; microsecond trading; bitcoin and other virtual currencies; and the meteoric rise of index-based mutual funds.  All that stuff is hard — hard to explain and hard to understand.  It’s a lot less fun than bank heists, deal toys, and solid gold monopoly sets.

Ultimately, however, the Museum of American Finance must address finance today, and not just finance 40 years ago.  Until it does so, it’s not living up to its mission or to my expectations.

Museum of American Finance

For Reference:

Address 48 Wall Street (corner of William Street), Manhattan
Website moaf.org
Cost  General Admission:  $8
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