What I’d put in my museum of the economy

10th August, 2023

Above the Viking swords and skeletons, across from the enchanting display of vintage dollhouses, Denmark’s National Museum contains a human-scale hamster wheel. Visitors may climb inside, grab the controls and slowly, arduously, start to walk and jog. A digital screen turns the treadmill into a pizza-delivery game, offering the chance to collect some virtual cash along the way.

As a representation of the grinding repetitiveness of a gig economy job, the subtext is obvious. Unless you’re aged 11, that is. My son loved it.

The hamster wheel is a centrepiece of an exhibition all about money and the economy: KA-CHING — Show Me the Money! Along with coins and banknotes, it has interactive quizzes, images of Damien Hirst’s “For The Love Of God” (that diamond-and-platinum skull) and a video of musicians Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, aka The KLF, burning a million quid on a Hebridean island in 1994. (Alas, I noticed no discussion of the true value of what Cauty and Drummond were destroying; curious readers may pick up a copy of my book The Undercover Economist Strikes Back if they are desperate to know.)

All in all, KA-CHING! is probably the best contender I’ve seen for a Museum of the Economy. Then again, there isn’t much competition. I’ve long fantasised about setting up such an institution, but it seems that few curators agree. While museums of science, technology and natural history adorn great cities all over the world, museums of the economy are rare.

Part of the problem is that economics tends to study large, diffuse phenomena through an abstract lens. Museums flourish when there’s something exciting to look at, whether it’s a Spitfire or the skeleton of a T-Rex. Good luck putting “recession” or “investment mania” into a glass display case. And so many economy-adjacent museums shy away from the central subject matter.

The Bank of England Museum, for example, is pleasant enough — spacious, elegant, free to enter — but its subject is really the Bank of England itself. There are exhibitions about the building’s architecture, the heroes and slave-trading villains who paced its corridors and, of course, coins and banknotes and a great big gold bar inside a Perspex box — you can reach in through a hole and try to pick it up. (Copenhagen’s KA-CHING! exhibit offers almost exactly the same Perspex-cased gold-bar-hefting experience.)

A new book, Making Economics Public, includes a chapter describing the Economy Museum of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis. The Economy Museum tries to discuss and demonstrate economic ideas beyond money. There’s an exhibit about choice and opportunity cost, an eight-player simulation of a trading pit, a game of barter. It sounds fun, even if the museum does also contain one of those accursed lift-the-gold-bar exhibits.

Could we do better? Perhaps. When I created my books and radio series Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy, my aim was to show the hidden economic forces around us by refracting them through everyday inventions. Not all of them compare favourably with a T-Rex, alas. I’m not sure how one would put “the welfare state” in a museum. Perhaps a waxwork of William Beveridge would do?

Nor does the index fund lend itself to an exhibit, even if the idea was once praised by the great economist Paul Samuelson as an invention to stand alongside “the wheel, the alphabet, Gutenberg printing, and wine and cheese”.

But other objects are more promising. The V&A wisely acquired Thomas Thwaites’s “Toaster Project” — a physical record of his doomed attempts to build himself a working toaster, starting with the search for raw materials. It brilliantly illustrates, by counterexample, the decentralised genius required to build a mass-market product; perhaps my nascent Museum of the Economy could arrange a loan from the V&A.

If so, I’d also beg the Science Museum for their Moniac, an amazing hydraulic computer designed to simulate the British economy. I’d pair it with a brief description of the life of its inventor, Bill Phillips, who had more adventures than Indiana Jones.

Perhaps someone could be persuaded to supply a cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia; thanks to the work of archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat, we now believe those tablets to exemplify the simultaneous development of contracts, accounts, mathematics and writing itself, all in service of an increasingly complex urban economy.

Scarcely cheaper would be a printer ink cartridge, the perfect introduction to ideas such as two-part pricing and switching costs.

A tulip could serve as a springboard for a discussion of financial manias, but a steam locomotive from York’s National Railway Museum might be more historically accurate. It is also one of the few exhibits that might beat even a T-Rex for the ability to inspire sheer awe.

To illustrate the evils of capitalism, perhaps a Bonsack machine — an invention to efficiently produce the deadliest product in human history, the cigarette. And on the more cheerful side, Norman Borlaug’s starvation-fighting dwarf wheat, and an interactive display showing how long a person has to work to afford an hour’s worth of good light, from the oil lamp (days) to the LED (seconds).

There’s more we could do, I am sure. So if you happen to have an empty exhibition space, friends in South Kensington and a million quid to burn, we should talk.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 14 July 2023.

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