Atlanta, Georgia USA
During my hike from downtown Atlanta to the High Museum in midtown, I walked by the Federal Reserve Bank at the corner of 10th and Peachtree Streets. The banners hanging from the light poles invited visitors to visit the Fed Museum and interact with the exhibits.
I accepted the invitation, and visited on my way back from the Design Museum.
As I was walking in, a school bus arrived. I was directly in front of them but immediately surrounded by them. Because they had a scheduled tour, they were allowed to enter before me. (That’s OK.)
Although the museum is intended as outreach from the Federal Reserve Bank to the general public, the entry experience only makes the outreach effort all the more difficult. Not only did I have to go through a metal detector, I had to provide photo ID to enter, lock my iPod with my backpack in a locker. I explained that I had an iPod, not an iPhone, and merely wanted to listen to music while visiting the museum. The security guard was afraid I might miss an emergency alarm. (Do they happen that frequently?)
Although the entrance experience weirded me out, I decided that I really wanted to see the museum and am glad I did.
The museum seems intended for students between upper elementary and high school. They try to fit as much education as possible into a relatively small space with mixed results.
The main gallery focuses on the story of money, showing the transition from barter to electronic transfers, and the rise of institutions to facilitate the exchange of money. The display includes a number of artifacts (some real, some fabricated for the display) to show all of the objects used as money.
An alcove off of the hall showing the history of money clearly explained how different means of payment worked, including cash, credit cards, debit cards, and electronic transfers. The display was duplicated with an interactive activity in which a “virtual” bank teller explains the same information. But the game seemed kind of hokey and the virtual teller spoke longer than the typical attention span of a visitor, especially a child or teenager.
A hallway off of the main exhibit leads to an observation area, where visitors can observe Federal Reserve Bank workers receiving shipments of money and going through bills to determine which ones to keep and which ones to destroy. Imaginatively presented labels explain these and related activities.
An alcove off of the observation area holds a video theater and an interactive activity that asks students about their knowledge of credit, especially for getting a mortgage. Although well-designed, the relationship to this museum is unclear as the Fed does not directly lend money for mortgages.
Among the interesting factoids learned in the museum:
- The name Dixie might come from the ten dollar note in Louisiana, which was written in French (whose word for ten is “dix”).
- The Chinese were the first to print money.
- Checks are a lot older than I realized—dating from the 1600s.
- The first printed money in the US were checks.
Some of the concepts are not well defined, including the two most central to the exhibition and the museum:
- Money. Although the concept is illustrated and several examples are provided, the term money itself is never defined.
- Central banking: Although its functions are presented, a formal definition of central banking is not provided. Furthermore, the description of the functions of a central bank varied in their clarity; printing of money was clear but I left the museum slightly confused about how the Fed manages money supply and completely confused about the concept of “elasticity of currency.” Mention is also made of earlier attempts at forming a central bank, but little is mentioned about their responsibilities or why they were so controversial in their day (even though the fact that a controversy exists was mentioned).
In fact, it would have been helpful to have an area that explains how the Fed differs from other banks. Exhibits describe the Fed and its governance structure, but don’t fully explain why 12 regional banks are needed. Nor do they adequately explain the relationship between gold, silver, and the current money supply (or lack of a relationship). The labels say they’re not important, but then explain that the Fed holds reserves of gold. In defense of the exhibition designers, these are concepts that could require a semester of university-level economics.
Other objects in the museum include the most beautiful coin ever minted by the US (a $US 20 gold coin), and one of the few complete collections of coins minted in Dahlonega, Georgia, where the US established a mint soon after gold was discovered there. In fact, the vast collection of coins surprised me; I had not expected to see that many and that was the most impressive part of the exhibition.
The other surprising display of the museum was a display of manuals used to guide the work of Federal Reserve Bank inspectors. As someone with a background in technical communication, I’m always pleasantly surprised to see manuals in a museum the three times I’ve seen them in my life. But I was surprised by the heavy emphasis on consumer protection in the financial services sector, especially given the controversy that accompanied the founding of a new federal agency to do just that.
This museum would probably fall into the category of a corporate museum. Its mission is clear both by its efforts to positively explain the work of the Fed. But like most corporate museums, they do try to address difficult issues (from their own angle, of course), including the failure of the Federal Reserve Bank to stop the Great Depression and its role in the financial crisis of 2007.
|Fast Facts about the Museum
Type of Museum: Corporate
Highlights of the Permanent Collection: Coins from all periods of US history.
Notes about Special Exhibitions: None.
Extensive documentation is provided for visitors to take home, including brochures about the topics in the museum and free post cards.
No gift shop.
Admission Discounts: Admission is free to all.
Issues to Consider When Visiting:
Takes about 1 hour to explore in-depth.
Be prepared to go through a metal detector, show photo ID, and to lock up all valuables during your visit.
No photography allowed.