For the birds and bees?

Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands, and make a stash
– Roger Waters

Generally speaking, I think of money as a crime. I can imagine, quite easily, a variety of economies in which it does not figure, and I analyse its function in the real world as a commodification of both symbolic and physical violence, as a channel for the distribution of exploitative relationships. It’s something I’d like to see the human race grow out of. But it is a facet of every society whose historical record is available to us, and its own history offers important insights into the forms and structures of our contemporary social, political and cultural ecologies. The Museum on the Mound, located in the basement of the historic headquarters of the Bank of Scotland (now a part of the Lloyds dominion), takes an unsurprisingly more positive view of money that I do, but its account still comes off as academically neutral rather than propagandistic.

It’s a well put-together small museum, which consistently strikes the difficult balance between text and object – aside from a random pistol in one case, all of the objects served clearly to illustrate the curatorial narratives, and the text was never an obstacle to looking at the objects. As the in-house museum of a financial establishment it was always unlikely to offer a searing critique of the financial services industry, but it does provide an interesting history of several institutions, illuminating social history from an unusual perspective. Photographs of employees enjoying staff holidays together over the course of many decades, and an extensive collection of advertising materials, both illustrated the changing textures of life through the twentieth-century, and the changing relationship between institutional employers and their staff.

At the heart of any museum focussed on money, of course, is a display of its circulating tokens, and the Museum on the Mound is no exception. There are two displays of a million pounds worth of cancelled bank notes (a surprisingly small heap of cash, in both cases), but much more interesting are the chronological arrangements of banknotes and coinage, along with a beautiful collection of printing plates. The coinage, in particular, transects the political history of Scotland, clarifying and illustrating its mutating relationship with the more powerful kingdom to the south – our perusal of the chronological coin case occasioned a frenzy of Wikipedia consultations, as our Anglo-centric historical understanding came up short in the face of important historical figures such as John Balliol and Margaret, Maid of Norway.

Aside from the obvious glamour and craftsmanship of the coinage and paper money, the most striking and beautiful objects for me were the mechanical adding machines. These ranged from sumptuous wood-and-brass Arithmometers from the mid nineteenth-century to quite high-tech looking black plastic ‘pocket calculators’, roughly the shape and size of a lens for a thirty-five millimetre camera, and included some business machines whose styling is not that far away from contemporary (or at least relatively recent) CPU cases. The Baroque Revival building itself is also a star of the collection, and a hands-on model enabled us to explore how the place was remodelled in 1863 by the architect David Bryce – a process in which Richard Crichton and Robert Reid’s Palladian original was more or less entirely encased in a new, larger building, without interrupting work in the offices inside.

There is no particularly controversial curatorial thesis to be found in any of these displays, and the museum caters to visitors of all ages and nationalities, so its narratives are neither demanding nor revolutionary. However, it is never patronising, and its simplifications rarely seem unfair or unnecessary – assuming the visitor is willing to, at least temporarily, set to one side any fundamental issues with capitalism that they bring with them. It offers some dramatic views across the basin of the old Nor Loch, as well as a thought-provoking social and material history of Scotland’s financial establishment, and the role played in that history by the ‘root of all evil’. And like the best things in life (according to the song), it’s free.

2 Comments

  1. Hmm… Well I certainly agree with your views on money. Like you I can think of no alternative. But I concur that money and business are mere sublimated violence, every bit as destructive in some senses as physical violence. With money we fear its lack, with violence we fear its presence. What a mess human society is.

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