Thursday, September 27, 2012

Belgian Money

I had a couple of hours to kill this morning in the neighborhood of the  National Bank of Belgium so I popped into their money museum and I must say it was time well spent.  It has  lot of stuff you would expect for a money museum: a gold sestère from the time of  Croesus, a miscellany of other exemplars.  But there was a lot more  For one, some interesting/amusing stuff about the culture of money: the French say  blé, flouze, fric, galette, pèze, pognon.  The Anglophones say dough, dolly, dosh, ready (but do they really?).  Benjamin Franklin said if you want to know the value of money, try borrowing some.  Oscar Wilde said when he was young, he thought money was everything, and when he got old, he knew it was.

But there are also some pretty good, albeit basic, exhibits on the nature and function of money, and the place of a central bank.  Here's a long bench with loaves of bread (I hope ceramic) and buckets of coal, indexing the purchasing power of the local  dosh from the middle of the 19th century until today.  Also a superbly done comic explaining inflation to kids (the Belgians do love their comics).  Oh, and also a couple of rooms preserving the atmosphere of the original 19th-Century bank, hilarious in ways that only a central banker can be  hilarious.

This being a museum with a heavy emphasis on schoolchildren, they smooth over a lot of rough spots.  They do talk about inflation but there isn't anything that I notice about panics, bankruptcy, grand theft, whatever.  If you're looking for a general discussion of, e.g., David Graeber/s new account of debt, you'd better look elsewhere.

And from the look of things, the cutoff date here is about 2007--which is to say just before the wheels came off, and the long majestic narrative of triumph turns into--whatever it is it turned into.  One prominent, well-established Belgian bank--Fortis--unraveled in the meltdown; several others went into intensive care. Might be interesting to see how you would put together a museum to tell this story, or to tell the more general stories of  Greece, or Ireland, or Spain, or Portugal or whatever.  But maybe that is the point of a museum: you can't tell a good museum story until all the participants are safely dead.

Afterthought: for a more elegant riff on a parallel theme, go here.

Another afterthought:  I said the Belgians love their comics.  Turns out that just up the road from the money museum, there is a museum of comics.

1 comment:

marcel proust said...

You might let John Holbo at Crooked Timber know (in case he doesn't already) about the museum of comics. Also, Ta-Nehisi Coates, at The Atlantic. Both are into comics, bigtime!