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Can money be used to disseminate ideas and values?

Watch as Professor Nicky Marsh takes us through the Money Room in the British Museum and explores how money has changed forms.

In this video, Tom and Nicky talk about the ways in which money is used as a source of cultural as well as economic power and authority. They touch on the long history of counterfeiting and there are many other examples that they could have used.

Counterfeiting, for example, has been undertaken by those who issue currency as well as by those who only use it. Frederick the Great (1712 – 1786), for example, ordered coins to be minted with excessively high copper content. The coins had a fine, silvery appearance, so could be passed off as silver coins instead of ones made from base metal.

In other contexts counterfeiting money is a crime against the state and can have very severe penalties: in the See Also section of this step, you can find some examples of how it has been treated in the UK.

Counterfeiting also increases at times of war. It sometimes functions as a weapon of war. Operation Andreas and Operation Bernhard were projects in Nazi Germany to produce counterfeit British banknotes. These were intended to be circulated in Britain to destabilise the British economy.
In other contexts counterfeiting occurs because more paper money is being produced during the war and that makes counterfeiting more possible. At the start of the Civil War in America in 1861, which was paid for by issuing ‘greenbacks’, it is estimated that half of the banknotes in circulation were forgeries. By the end of the century, the introduction of the secret service meant that widespread counterfeiting was virtually nonexistent.

What do you do if you think you have a counterfeit coin? Tom mentions ‘Gresham’s Law’, which insists that bad money drives out good money, do you think that this is always the case?

Use of money to convey social meanings

In the video, Tom discusses the ways in which suffragettes defaced coins in order to pass their political message on and the ritual placing of coins in wishing trees.

Both of these examples can be placed in a long tradition of individuals and artists using money in order to formulate a political or social message. The Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Meireles, for example, defaced Brazilian banknotes as a way of critiquing the repressive military regime that was operating in Brazil in the early 1970s. In his Insertions into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project Meireles stamped political messages, naming journalists who had been killed by the regime, directly onto banknotes. Meireles asks who had killed these men and allows an important political question to be asked in ways that evaded the strict censorship that was controlling other forms of communication. Later, Meireles joined the tradition of artists who have created or forged, alternative currencies in order to create a political message. He created the ‘zero dollar’ note, a way of critiquing the economic support that Americans were giving to the regime.

One of the most famous examples of a forged note that makes a satirical political point is that of George Cruikshank’s Bank Restriction Note from 1820. The note depicts a row of hanged men, men who received the death penalty for creating counterfeit notes. In this note, Cruikshank is critical not only of the severity of the punishment but of the causes of the crime itself. Again, this instance connects counterfeiting to the kinds of money that are produced to pay for war. Britain had come off the gold standard to pay for the war with France in the 1790s and the Bank Restriction Act had suspended the convertibility of notes into coin. It was the proliferation of a paper money that was easy to forge, and the role of the Government that allowed it to happen, that is at the centre of Cruikshank’s satire.

There are also popular forms of defacing money which are much less angry but do communicate a sense of community. Only a few years ago the Bank of Canada, for example, had to ask people to stop drawing Spock from Star Trek on the Canadian Five Dollar note!

Have you ever done any or seen anything like this with money? Perhaps thrown it into a wishing well? Or received money that has been drawn upon? You can find lots of examples of these on Max Haiven’s “Money and Art” Tumblr. What do these examples suggest about the ways in which people use money, to either articulate a message or create a sense of community?

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Understanding Money: the History of Finance, Speculation and the Stock Market

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