A new exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester explores the financial and artistic value of money
What is money? As I write this, I’ve got a tenner and some coins on my desk. I can count them if you like – £14.20. And with a few clicks I can see my bank account, credit card and ISA on my screen too. I know how much money I’ve got. Or not got. Some of that money I can see, touch and smell, while some of it is intangible and beyond my reach.
Now, what is finance? That’s a slightly trickier question – and certainly not something easy to visualise.
The People’s History Museum’s new exhibition, Show Me the Money, looks at how artists attempt to depict money, banking and finance through illustration, photography and digital media – visual representations of our relationship with money that aren't pound signs, numbers on bank statements or cash in our pockets. It examines how money inspires creativity and how we use art to make statements and ask questions about our financial experiences.
It also asks us to consider the real value of money. Looking back at that cash on the desk, what is £14.20 really worth? It could be exchanged for three pints of beer, two months of Netflix or a decent lunch. That’s what the money is worth, but only in financial terms.
What’s clear from this exhibition is that commentary on – and critique of – the world of finance isn’t new. The display presents a mixture of historical objects from the museum’s collection alongside pieces of contemporary art. Just as William Hogarth was commenting on the South Sea Bubble financial crisis of 1720, so contemporary artists have reacted to the financial world around them.
Simon Roberts’s collage of images and words drawn from the media coverage of the 2008 financial crisis, Credit Crunch Lexicon, makes for a bewildering and overpowering visitor experience. It is disorienting and confusing – perhaps just as confusing as the portrayal of the event. In 2008 it seemed like every front page had a picture of a banker with their head in their hands – we all understood that. But the copy that sat alongside the pictures had many people unsure as to what was really happening.
Beate Geissler, Volatile Smile (2010)
Beate Geissler’s huge photograph of computers from a bank’s trading floor, meanwhile, shows that so much of the world of finance isn’t controlled by people at all – it’s left to financial software to make split-second calculations, buying and selling at breakneck speed, to make as much profit as possible. Humans can’t make that many complicated decisions fast enough, so technology has been asked to take over the decision making process for us. Geissler’s image of screens and computers, abandoned by humans, left to their own devices, sends us a warning that the future of our financial wellbeing might not be in our hands but down to the whimsy of software.
However, this exhibition doesn’t pass judgement on banks or on bankers. For a long time, banking was seen as a safe and respected career – and for many it still is. Visitors are asked to reflect on our relationship with the world of banks and financial services. A 1978 advert from TSB proudly heralds the new era of women owning their own chequebooks and, it is implied, their freedom. The poster proudly announces that ‘TSB is different because we want to treat women the same,’ and a speech bubble next to an image of a customer reads: ‘My mother thinks just because I have my own cheque book I’m never going to get married.’
Stories about money will always dominate the media: this exhibition opens in the week of the UK budget and a Greek referendum about a bailout package, and it’s pleasing that it features something current, something that comments on the now. On display is a replica of a work by Greece’s answer to Banksy, Stefanos.
Stefanos takes bank notes, draws subversive images on them – stick-people jumping off buildings, nooses and representations of death – and returns them to circulation. As such, his work is never in one place, passing from person to person as transactions are conducted – consequently this makes displaying them in a museum rather difficult, hence the replica. Whether he's defacing or decorating money is left to your own judgement of what art might be. Part of what makes this exhibition meaningful is the juxtaposition of modern pieces like Stefanos’s bank notes with objects such as a ledger book from 1729 documenting a payday loan to writer Daniel Defoe. Struggling to feed your family when short of cash isn’t a new problem.
A question visitors often ask in museums is how much the objects are worth. What would the sale price be if they were available on the open market? Unlike Antiques Roadshow pundits, museums can’t always put prices on their collections. Instead, they try to demonstrate their value or worth in terms beyond pounds and pence. Yet, you might still find yourself standing in an exhibition that has asked you to consider your relationship with money and finance thinking, “How much would all these objects cost?”
Either way, the exhibition is free to enter. But the experience is worth a great deal more.