Oh, money!

The Millennium Park left me craving less touristy experiences of Chicago. Having made up my mind to hit some of the not-so-popular destinations, I stopped by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

They have a money museum.

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I drew a blank walking in. It was a new idea—a money museum. I wasn’t sure if they’d have piles of money or just the history of money making. They had both.

Banners about Alexander Hamilton lines the walls He was the founder of the national bank, and the banners explained why and how the bank came into, and then went out of, practice.

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Framed posters or print ads that ran during wartime lined the walls. It was like peaking into the past, observing the government’s strategies to encourage people to save money, and only donate to sensible causes. For someone who hadn’t the slightest knowledge about the financial history of America, it was all fascinating.

Currency notes are cotton and not paper, I learnt. Huh, I wondered—perhaps it was the then-government’s way of recycling and using less paper? It’s possible.

There was an interactive display with stories of the leaders etched in each of denomination of a currency note.  There were titbits about Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and even more.

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All the time, while I clicked away at the knobs, I couldn’t help but wonder how unlike a traditional history lesson this was. Instead of scanning through page after page here was a far more playful way for a child or a novice to start learning about a country’s currency system.

To take things further, there was a model of The Lifecycle of the Dollar. It showed how currency goes from production to circulation, and then to shredding and recycling. It took me a while to comprehend the complexity of the process and yet the simplicity of the explanatory model.

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Apart from those, were special exhibits about inflation, identifying counterfeit bills, the evolution of money, the types of bills used during various wars.

While I tried to wrap my head around all the new information coming my way, one of the museum staff announced a 30-minute presentation. A federal bank employee took to the stage, playing a 15-minute video explaining the federal bank’s operations in layperson terms. It was neither dense nor full of jargon—the presentation was understandable for someone foreign as I. And soon after the video, the presenter answered questions, dropping mind-blowing facts every now and then.

Who would’ve thought Abraham Lincoln founded the Secret Service a while before his assassination? Or that it’s the Secret Service that checks for counterfeit bills?

The Federal Bank of Chicago stores up to a hundred million dollars in its vaults, and is the only Federal Bank of all 52 states that remains unrobbed. Yet.

I came out of the session far more knowledgeable and curious than I’d ever been before. I was never one to care about banks, but that museum and the presentation made me see things with a renewed perspective.

If you’re in Chicago, visit this museum. It’s not just for kids, although it makes learning so much interesting, but it’s also a wonderful way for grown ups to pause and ruminate about the money we handle every day. We don’t realise this often enough but our purchasing power depends on so many varying factors and individuals. It’s eye-opening to understand how a single fluctuation in global economy can affect our rents, our mortgages, and our salaries.

 

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