Feb 21, 2009

A Timely Visit to The Museum of American Finance

One day this past week, while watching the opening minutes of the markets on various TV channels, experiencing vicariously the adrenaline rush, or in this case, the nausea, that attends the opening bell, it seemed like American finance, as we've come to know it, was entering a dramatically tense chapter in its story. At some point, I remembered that New York is home to an institution called the Museum of American Finance, and looking up its hours and address (48 Wall Street, fittingly, in the Bank of New York building), I made note to visit.

Wall Street on a Saturday morning lacks the bustling atmosphere of the trading week, but as of late the ranks of finance have been thinning anyway. On this morning, many tourists were out and about, mostly milling around George Washington's statue in front of Federal Hall and taking pictures of themselves. The museum, down the way on "the street," occupies the building once home to the oldest bank in the country, the Bank of New York. The state bank was founded by Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father from New York, and the biggest nationalist of them all. If you recall, 'twas Hamilton that proposed the idea of a national bank - First Bank of the United States- as President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury. I expect we'll be hearing more of Hamilton's thoughts on banks in the coming year.

The building at 48 Wall that houses the museum dates from the 1920s, and the interior's richness of architectural detail, historical murals, and formality makes it a good venue for the historical visual presentation of money, banking, the stock market, mercantile exchanges, technology and the markets, and more. The Museum of American Finance, founded in 1988, was located in the Standard Oil Building on Broadway until its move here in January of 2008. Because the museum is relatively new at this location, the presentation of information is up-to-date and hip to multimedia presentations.

The museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, doesn't try to put forth a highly ideological argument; rather, the exhibits only suggest that the world of American finance and banks is a fascinating one. Indeed, along with the story of banks, we're treated to a few monitors showing us the top names in the history of robbing banks - Butch Cassidy and Bonnie and Clyde, for example, and in another exhibit, we learn of shameful acts of insider trading, accompanied by pictures of Michael Milken, Enron, and Martha Stewart. In a field loaded with jargon, the museum nicely explains the historical march of finance clearly and without any insider lingo.

Other highlights include the artifacts of Wall Street technology - from messenger pigeon to the Bloomberg terminal, the source of our Mayor's wealth; the story of the Buttonwood Agreement, the forerunner of the New York Stock Exchange; the presence of John Thain, the last chair and CEO of Merrill Lynch, with famous tastes in redecorating, as a talking head in the video explaining how stocks are traded; and a beaver pelt in the History of Money exhibit.

The museum needs a few extra panels explaining what has occurred in finance since the autumn of 2008, but I would not be envious of the person assigned that task.

The Museum of American Finance (link to museum website)
48 Wall Street
New York, NY 10005
HOURS:
Open Tuesday - Saturday, 10 am - 4 pm
Closed national and stock market holidays.
Adults $8; Students/seniors $5; Museum members and kids 6 and under FREE

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Saturday, February 21, 2009.

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