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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds NICKY MARSH: Here we are outside the British Museum in Central London. And we’ve come here to meet Tom Hockenhull, the Curator of Modern Money. Tom’s going to explore the money gallery with us. And we’re going to look at the imagined material and the social histories of the money form.

Skip to 0 minutes and 35 seconds So here I am with Tom Hockenhull in the Money Gallery in the British Museum. And Tom is the curator of Modern Money. Tom, can you tell me how good is money at keeping its value?

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds THOMAS HOCKENHULL: Not very good at all, really. [LAUGHS] I mean, if this gallery is anything to go by, I mean, there’s lots of competing currencies, there’s lots of complementary currencies, and they all have different value and they’re all making different things. That’s because humans for a very long time have been trying to measure everything. I mean, we measure volume, we measure distance, but we also measure what things are worth and we try to place value on that.

Skip to 1 minute and 15 seconds And as things become more expensive for whatever reason, there are all these different factors which, as you know, sort of combine to create a very complex world, and how we value that has been a constant challenge for humans– well, at least for the past 3,000 years.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds NICKY MARSH: Just the last 3,000 years.

Skip to 1 minute and 35 seconds THOMAS HOCKENHULL: Ish.

Skip to 1 minute and 36 seconds NICKY MARSH: Ish. And what are the examples do you think of the money that’s been the least good at retaining its value? And what are the forms of money that are the best at retaining their value?

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds THOMAS HOCKENHULL: Well people used to say, well commodities are great. Commodities, we’ve been getting these crops every year and they hold that sort of stable value, but actually they don’t. Crops can spoil, and also if there’s a bad harvest, that creates huge problems. I mean, most recently in the 18th century in America, the price of tobacco went up. So actually, sometimes we might think that something is stable value, so that’s why for a very long time, the incorruptible elements– gold, silver, that’s been used as a kind of standard measure, because they’re in relatively short supply, and that’s the key thing. A stable currency has to have maintained levels of availability. And as you know, gold is quite rare, it’s precious.

Skip to 2 minutes and 31 seconds And so for a very long time, until probably the 1970s, really, the collapse of the IMF, it was the sort of go-to basket for trying to maintain a very stable value. And we’re in a sort of post-gold standard world or post-IMF world or post-Bretton Woods where we’re now trying to make sense of what actually what can you replace gold with and what is that stable thing that we can measure value against? And also, we’re becoming more abstract again. So– I mean, I think one thing that’s proven itself to be both very stable and very unstable is money.

Skip to 3 minutes and 8 seconds So if it’s backed like by something, if there is a stable thing underpinning it, whether that’s gold or just the central bank that manages to set inflation rates and all the rest of it, that can be stable. But then when it goes wrong, it can go disastrously wrong, because of course, paper is the one thing that we can print.

Skip to 3 minutes and 25 seconds NICKY MARSH: That’s right. But paper money has always existed alongside gold. For a lot of this history, at least.

Skip to 3 minutes and 31 seconds THOMAS HOCKENHULL: Well, yes, but it’s the last 300–

Skip to 3 minutes and 33 seconds NICKY MARSH: Yeah, modern period.

Skip to 3 minutes and 35 seconds THOMAS HOCKENHULL: Yeah.

Skip to 3 minutes and 35 seconds NICKY MARSH: And what has happened to paper money? Why is paper money so dangerous or so volatile in periods of uncertainty?

Skip to 3 minutes and 41 seconds THOMAS HOCKENHULL: Because the easiest thing to do is print it and to create more notes. I mean, we have a whole poster in the back of this gallery made from Zimbabwe dollars. And in 2007, the economy collapsed, and what they did to try and mitigate that was to print more money. And that led to hyperinflation, and suddenly you had lots and lots of zeros appearing at the end of the notes. And that’s an extreme example of the way in which it can get out of hand, but it’s happened before with less severe consequences.

Skip to 4 minutes and 15 seconds But it’s the one thing that you can’t really control, because ultimately the easiest thing for a government to do is just go to the printer and say, give me more money. [LAUGHS]

How good is money at holding its value?

This is the first of a three-part interview between Nicky Marsh and Tom Hockenhull, curator in Room 68 of the British Museum (the Money Gallery).

In this guided tour of the Money Room, we will look at the changing material forms of money from cowrie shells and tally sticks to the modern digital economy.

Across the three videos, we will also explore four themes that have dominated the ways in which currency have been thought about.

  1. We will look at the question of value, what gives money its value and how does it keep it?

  2. We will look at money’s reach across space and time, what kinds of money can go anywhere and what kinds of money are fixed to certain locations?

  3. We will look at how money has been subject to counterfeiting and defacing and will explore the steps that governments have taken to keep money safe.

  4. Finally, we will look at the ways in which money has been used as a mode of communication: the stories and messages that have been carried by it.

In this discussion, Tom and Nicky talk about the ways in which money can hold, and lose, its value. They touch on the long history of gold that was used, until the ending of the gold standard in America in 1971, as a way of stabilising the value of money. They then talk about the changes, and potential risks to money’s value, that occurred in the modern period when gold was supplanted by paper money and became increasingly abstract as a form.

Nicky and Tom focus on the example of the Trillion Dollar Campaign by The Zimbabwean newspaper. This newspaper was driven into exile for reporting on the Mugabe regime. A 55% import tax was placed on paper, making it impossible to print a newspaper that ordinary residents of Zimbabwe could afford to buy. This meant that sales needed to be subsidised by people outside of the country.

The advertising agency TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris in Johannesburg was brought in to help increase sales of The Zimbabwean. Here’s what they did:

We developed a unique solution. One of the most eloquent symbols of Zimbabwe’s collapse is the Z$ trillion dollar note, a symptom of their world record inflation. This money cannot buy anything, not a loaf of bread and certainly not any advertising. But it can become the advertising. So, we turned the money into its own medium by printing our messages straight onto it.

In rush-hour traffic, malls and universities millions and billions were given out one note at a time. We sent bundles of cash to captains of industry, politicians and media personalities. Wherever the Zimbabwean was sold, we put up posters made of real money. At every public place we could, we had a poster-with notes that people could detach to keep the email address. We made trillion dollar wallpaper murals and even made the world’s first billboards out of real money.

Can you think about the other side of this debate though? Of some of the reasons that economies stopped using gold as a currency and moved to paper money, volatile as it is? The economist John Maynard Keynes, for example, infamously called the gold standard a ‘barbarous relic’ in the 1920s. He condemned it because he considered it to be a form of money that relied on scarcity, governments can’t make more gold, and he thought it resulted in an economy that would contract rather than expand. Gold has always aroused strong feelings for some. What place now does it have in economy? Does it still have a place in the digital age of the bitcoin and cryptocurrencies? Who uses gold and how and why do they use it?

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