“Legal Tender” Show Examines the History of American Money

by Maeve Gately

A mere block away from the New York Stock Exchange, an exhibit that opened Wednesday at the Museum of American Finance offers a very different view of the iconic dollar bill. Emily Erb, a Philadelphia-based artist, photographed and magnified 12 modern and historical bills for an exhibition she calls “Legal Tender.” The bills are printed on large silk flags and hung under the gallery’s high ceilings.

The show, which is on loan from the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, is intended to examine the idea of “metaphorically counterfeit” money, since the bills are reprinted on silk screens. On Wall Street, the exhibit is another way to look at the history of American finance.

The bills range in date from 1862 through the present. Two were printed by the Confederacy, several others by the National Bank System, which allowed private banks throughout the country to print their own versions of national currency during the Civil War. The National Bank System was replaced by the Federal Reserve, which issues currency today.

Mark Anderson, an expert in the history of currency who is consulting for the museum, explained that some of the bills come from the “Educational Series” printed in the late 1890s. These depict allegorical scenes, like “History Teaching Youth,” or “Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World.” As beautifully ilustrated as these may be, Anderson said, they are still technically legal tender. The U.S. has never demonetized any bill, and old versions of currency can still be exchanged at any bank in the country for their modern equivalent.

Tourists visiting the financial district often wander into the museum, said Maura Ferguson, director of exhibits. She sees the exhibit as an opportunity to show give visitors a “taste of the variety of notes” of American currency.

On opening day, that intention seemed to be working. Kristers Zuika, a 19- year-old British student, came to Wall Street and the museum to see what he referred to as “the Western, American style of business.” He said the American dollar is a “symbol of the country itself.”

Zuika is studying international business at the University of Sheffield in England, and says he sees the American business world as “big and grand.”

Kevin Duan, 15, came to the museum with his parents, Qiang Duan and Tong Wu. They are Chinese immigrants living in Philadelphia, and came to the Chinese Consulate in New York to have Kevin’s passport renewed. Kevin said he is interested in studying finance, and is fascinated by the way the financial industry is “rigorous and mathematic, but also volatile” and based in the public perception of different companies’ strengths. He said the exhibit gives a visual timeline of the history of the United States.

The bills are the latest incarnation of a public art project Erb created in Philadelphia in 2012, in which she duplicated $1 bills in silk and hung them around the city as a commentary on the 2008 housing crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Now they hang in the museum, which is a former Bank of New York. The bank, founded by Alexander Hamilton, was built from 1927–1929, in the opulent years right before the stock market crash.

The exhibit runs through August.

Originally published at columbiajournalist.org on April 9, 2015.

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