Federal Reserve Bank of New York Museum


Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 108 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The tantalizing glimpse into the gold vault.  I’m not awed by wealth, generally, but there’s wealth and there’s WEALTH.

Federal Reserve Bank of New YorkThe Federal Reserve Bank of New York occupies a huge (full city block) beautiful Italian palazzo of a building constructed for it in 1924.  Its classical grandeur meant to evoke the stability of many centuries of tradition. Solid and rich, like a Medici. Which was important, because the Fed was then still a fairly young institution created to stabilize the financial system and steer the economy in the right direction.

Security at the New York Fed exceeds even that of the United Nations. And frankly, in terms of relative institutional importance, that might be appropriate.

However, mere mortals can in fact visit. Limited free tours introduce visitors to the history and role of the Federal Reserve System, explain what the New York Fed does in particular, and, best of all, permit them to ogle one of the largest accumulations of gold in the world.

Unsurprisingly the Fed maintains a very strict no photos policy. But I can show you another pretty exterior shot, replete with financial district tulips.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York

The Fed and What it Does

Maureen, who guided my tour, was excellent.  Funny and interesting and patient, she went over the potentially dry facts of the history of the Federal Reserve System and the New York Fed (founded on my birthday in 1914) with just about the right amount of detail.

The part of the building that now houses the museum used to be the retail window. Back in the day, if you wanted to buy a treasury bond, you actually physically came here, queued up with fellow bond-buyers, and walked out with a piece of paper. Almost iconceivable!

The museum and tour covers all the various functions the Fed provides the financial system, including bank supervision, handling cash, clearing large money transfers between banks, and setting interest rates.  

At times, the museum displayed an unexpected flair for the visual. For example, on the bank supervision front, the criteria the Fed use to assess whether a bank is likely to go belly-up in the next financial crisis comprise:

  • Capital adequacy
  • Assets
  • Management capability
  • Earnings
  • Liquidity
  • Sensitivity

The museum’s display on this comes complete with a lifelike stuffed CAMEL to drive home the acryonym.

The display on cash-related services included a giant pallet of greenbacks in a plexiglas case, though Maureen said only the ones on the outside were real.  And a similarly oversized vitrine of shredded currency.  Good for lining very expensive hamster cages?

Another part of the museum displayed the Fed’s long standing kids’ comic book series, featuring such page-turners as “The Story of Inflation.”  Sure, King T’Challa has enhanced physical strength and vibranium armor, but does Wakanda have an independent central bank?  Is he pursuing sound monetary policies?  I hope the next Avengers movie finally addresses these burning questions.

The tour was surprisingly interesting, and the museum is similarly really good — not overly large, but well curated, with some good A/V bits, and a beautiful, historic space. That said, there’s no denying that most visitors are there for only one thing, and the museum tour is just the price of admission for what comes next.

The Greatest Hole in New York City

Maureen the guide led our group (about 15 people total) into two elevators for a brief journey down, down, down 80 feet below street level to the bedrock of Manhattan.  There, in a hole laboriously carved into the schist, is a vault full of gold. Tons of it.  Like, over 6,000 tons of it.  Half a million gold bars. At current prices, over two hundred billion dollars worth.

Some of it belongs to the United States government. But a lot of it belongs to other countries (or authorized non governmental institutions — no privately owned gold here). After World War II, as European stability was in doubt –remember Communism? — many American allies shipped their gold, the heavy physical stuff that then underwrote their currencies and filled their treasuries, to New York, for safekeeping at the Fed.

And, for the whole of the postwar economic era, they’ve largely been content to leave their gold there, deep under Manhattan. The Fed sometimes settles international payments by moving bars from one country’s vault section to another’s. Finance at its most raw and primitive. It charges a modest fee for that service, which seems fair given the weight involved. Those who handle the gold wear special zinc foot-protectors over their shoes, lest they drop a bar and lose a toe.

Six Thousand Tons of Gold

You don’t get to see much of the vault on the tour. It’s basically just a peek in the door. But it’s a sight that few people get to see, except as dragon-infested CGI in the Hobbit, or animated in Scrooge McDuck cartoons. Or in Die Hard with a Vengeance, the plot of which involves robbing this very vault. Maureen pointed out that the gold in the specific holding area we looked at was particularly pretty – probably a gold-silver alloy. As opposed to all that ugly gold that they keep it in the less visible vaults.

Perhaps because it’s the pretty gold, even the glimpse is awe inspiring. Whatever the future holds for bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, they will never, ever have the charisma of stacks and stacks (and stacks) of gold bars.

The vault itself has an utterly reassuring, impregnable, electro-mechanical, thoroughly offline feel to it. It’s an engineering tour-de-force, a descendant of the beautiful vault door at Federal Hall National Memorial, or the vault locks at the Mossman Lock Museum, only on a far, far (far) grander scale.

Should You Visit the Federal Reserve Bank Museum?

Federal Reserve Bank of New YorkNew York has many places where you can see vast wealth on display.  The literally priceless art collections at the Met and MoMA. The skyscrapers. The Gilded Age mansions that now house museums along Fifth Avenue. Trump Tower. But the Fed’s gold vault represents wealth on a wholly other scale. Adam Smithian. As in, the Wealth of Nations. There is nothing like it.  It is completely worth the modest hassle of trying to snag a tour spot.

Moreover, at the end of the Federal Reserve tour, something happened that I have not experienced at any other New York museum. I’m not going to say what – some things are better a surprise. But it was a small, amusing thing that shows that the Fed has an unexpected, impish sense of humor. Oh, fine, if you want the spoiler click here.

The American and global economies are vast and complex things.  The Federal Reserve Bank Museum only touches some aspects. If you’re a banker or an economist, you might consider visiting the Museum of American Finance as well.  But the Fed museum is a delight, easily the best financial museum in New York.  Anyone who likes money will love it.

For Reference:

Address  44 Maiden Lane, Manhattan
Website  newyorkfed.org. Advance reservations limited and absolutely required.
Cost  General Admission:  Free
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