Mind your money: money matters
Money. It doesn’t grow on trees and can’t buy you love or happiness, but apparently it makes the world go round. The subject of so many songs and clichés, money dominates and determines our life experience, even our identity.
This much is obvious to those who attend the New Horizon Youth Centre, a London-based charity that supports homeless and at risk young people, and aims to help them create a more positive future for themselves. Part of New Horizon’s Social Enterprise Project offers young people the chance to improve on essential life skills, such as communication and confidence, by providing workshops in partnership with organisations like the British Museum, and with artists like myself.
So this was how a group of bright young people from New Horizon and I came to be gathered around a table in the British Museum, talking about money, with the Citi Money Gallery Education Manager, Mieka Harris, and the Curator of the Citi Money Gallery, Ben Alsop as part of the Citi Money Gallery Education Programme.
Our discussions were sparked off by some intriguing handling objects, selected by the curator from the Museum’s extensive collection of coins and currencies. As we lifted the lid on boxes of enigmatic artifacts, money started to appear in all sorts of unexpected guises, unusual materials, shapes and sizes. Large heavy crosses of copper weighed alongside tiny slivers of silver, and exotic shells rolled out next to green knives and pieces of fine silk cloth. The diversity of the designs was remarkable, highlighted by these examples of the different material forms that money has adopted throughout history and across the world. In each of these tokens, we glimpsed something of the time and culture that had originally issued them for commercial exchange.
While no one in our group could imagine carrying shells in their wallet or swapping copper crosses for goods and services around London, the idea of money as a versatile designed object appealed to everyone. We took a closer look at our own contemporary currency, observing the intricate detail that ensures the designs are as secure as they are symbolic, and a powerful representation of our national identity.
Security and identity became relevant themes as one of the participants described how she had to scan her fingerprint to pay for food on account at her college canteen. This biometric payment method had been installed for convenience and safety, so that students would no longer need to carry cash. A contentious debate then ensued, as the New Horizon group questioned the control of our personal data, the anonymity of cash and the rise of cryptocurrencies, such as BitCoin. Was technology improving security, or just compromising our privacy?
I shared an example from my own work, which illustrates one instance where biometric transfers could arguably improve on current methods of economic exchange.
This image, from a series of petri dish experiments called Financial Growth, reveals the bacteria present on coins and suggests that each time we make a cash transaction, we are exchanging more than just the monetary value and some tangible tokens. Hard currency could become a point of contagion.
Alternatively, I suggested to the group that technology has the potential to make money more personal, in a sociable and emotional way. Introducing my project called Money No Object, I demonstrated how a series of wearable technology prototypes could use social gestures as a method of making a payment or donating to charity. With technology tags embedded in gloves, rings, badges and shoes, the Money No Object wearables enable value to be transferred at the point of physical contact, by shaking hands, giving a high-five, hugging or even by tap-dancing on a giant coin with a pair of ‘Tap & Pay’ shoes.
The New Horizon group were keen to donate some fictional pounds by giving me some high-fives and watching their donations quickly add up on the corresponding info graphic – a live screen which records the total amount of donations in real time. The Money No Object project aims to encourage the frequency and level of charitable giving, by making the donation process sociable and entertaining. Judging by the grand total at the end of the high-five demo, the project achieved its purpose with this enthusiastic group!
So as we explored the increasing convergence of money, technology and identity, and recognised that money could incur a very personal exchange, I invited the group to express some of their ideas visually, by designing their own coins. What would they choose to represent if they were creating their own monetary tokens?
After sketching out some of their initial thoughts on paper, the group were given the chance to scribe these designs onto wax discs which would later be cast into bronze and displayed at the British Museum.
From representations of surveillance and state control to symbols of infinity, freedom and love; from expressions of financial lack to being financially on track, the effects of money inscribed by the young people were insightful and revealing. Some coins humorously commented on the cost of living with the words ‘arm’ and ‘leg’ while other designs were abstract, like the very notion of money.
Experimenting with these newly-introduced skills of carving and scribing into casting wax, the New Horizon participants deftly worked the material to produce these highly creative results. You can already see some of these personal coin tokens, now cast into bronze, on show in the Citi Money Gallery, located in Room 68 of the British Museum, alongside a selection of the Money No Object wearable prototypes.
After such a fantastic day working with these brilliant young people from the New Horizon Youth Centre and inspiring staff from the British Museum, I am really excited to be continuing this collaboration over the coming months, and exploring the far-reaching significance of money.
The Citi Money Gallery and the Citi Money Gallery Education Programme are supported by Citi