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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.
NICKY MARSH: So one of the things we’re interested in on this course are things that people do with money– things that people do legally with money when they use it as a form of communication, and also things people do illegally with money when they make their own money. What are the most interesting examples in this room that you know of of counterfeit money, and what are its implications?
TOM HOCKENHULL: Well, those that we know of I can say are probably in this case behind me, which has a display of Roman barbaric coins– very debased, nasty-looking things– and objects which might be slightly more familiar, the recent pound coins– not the most recent because, as you know, the Royal Mint now produces a bimetallic 12-sided coin. It’s very difficult to forge. But they had huge problems with the old pound coin because it was quite easy to cast them. They’re round. And lots of mould-made forgeries were in existence. It was estimated at one point that it was three in every 100, so 3% of pound coins were fakes. They weren’t particularly good fakes.
It’s fairly easy, once you know how to tell, to spot a fake. But that kind of didn’t matter. Because as you know, Gresham’s law “more bad money drives out good”. So people would find them in their change, and they wouldn’t diligently return them to the banks. No, they’d go out and spend them as quickly as they could to get rid of them. And so you also had a social phenomenon, the way in which that works, that you find counterfeiting coins often will circulate in at a greater velocity than genuine coinage.
NICKY MARSH: So some counterfeit coins, it doesn’t matter. They just function as normal coins. But when does counterfeiting become dangerous to an economy and to country?
TOM HOCKENHULL: When it’s state sponsored. So there are numerous examples, normally driven through conflicts, through political turmoil, in which states have taken it upon themselves to instruct printers to create fakes in order to damage a rival economy. So in Cuba, for example during the Cuban Missile Crisis– so it’s 1961– it’s thought that a CIA-backed operation led to the creation of lots and lots of fake Cuban pesos– they’re famously known as the F Series because they will have an F serial number– in order to undermine the Cuban economy. During the Second World War, the German government instructed concentration camp inmates to print fake five-pound notes, again, to try and undermine the UK economy.
It was known as Operation Bernhard, a very famous campaign. And it failed, largely because Britain had a shortage of notes at the time.
NICKY MARSH: So it was actually helpful in that instance.
TOM HOCKENHULL: A little bit. But of course, the problem, as well, is that it then undermines confidence in the currency. It’s no coincidence that the Bank of England, straight after the war, redesigned the five pound note because it realised that the currency was vulnerable. And that’s the worst thing that can happen is not so much that you cause inflation but you undermine trust. And trust is crucial.
NICKY MARSH: So how else do people use money? So we know that money is a form of communication from the state or from the person who made the money. But how else is it used by the people who are using the money? How else does it carry social meanings? Are there any examples from history of money being used in these kinds of ways?
TOM HOCKENHULL: Oh, absolutely. Currency has been used for so many other purposes apart from just usual transaction. It’s always held kind of a ritual purpose. For example, in the 17th, 18th, 19th century, people went around the UK hammering coins into trees, for example. And they’d pick a tree in a forest and go and do that. So you think, why do they do that? And obviously, there have been lots of studies about why people hammer coins into trees. But more commonly, people like to use currency, and the fact that currency circulates, to spread a message.
And it’s the best way, in a way, to perhaps push a message beyond your echo chamber, beyond your friends, your allies, your family, to people you don’t know, people who might not necessarily agree with your point of view. Case in point, we have a coin in the British Museum, which was defaced in 1913, possibly 1914, with the slogan “votes for women.” Now, it was done using individual letter punches. So each letter had to be diligently hammered into the coin– a very time-consuming process. So one gets the sense that not only was this about getting a message into circulation but it was also providing a sense of catharsis for the person who was doing it.
NICKY MARSH: Anger, doing this.
TOM HOCKENHULL: Sheer anger. Why don’t women get to vote? Let’s assume that it was a suffragette or a supporter of the suffragette movement who did it. There are contemporary newspaper reports which write about Scotland Yard basically wagging its finger, saying, you know, this is against the law. But of course, they couldn’t stop it. And it fed into that same pattern of resistance and rebellion and direct action that was being perpetrated by the WSPU and other suffragette organisations against a country that refused women the vote.
NICKY MARSH: The suffragettes were also a kind of economic body in themselves, weren’t they? They had a shop. They sold bikes. I mean, it was a part of the capitalist system. They were using money that they were using in other ways, is that not right?
TOM HOCKENHULL: Absolutely. Money had a function. Votes for Women, the suffragette newspaper, sold for a penny. I can imagine somebody going with their “votes for women” defaced penny and buying a copy of it.

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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