There?s not much to catch the eye at 3 Amerikis Street in central Athens, though this is where the National Bank of Greece houses its museum.
The museum?s current exhibition is on Greece?s numismatic history. It is free of charge and is proving to be very popular, especially among younger visitors, who are captivated by the clever exhibits.
Children are able to make as much noise as they want, because here there are no guards to tell them to hush up. They can indulge their enthusiasm for learning about how money works and where it comes from, and that is what this museum, which has been in operation for just one year, is all about.
The first exhibit is an attention grabber: It is a large installation consisting of five transparent boxes containing 1.5 million euros. Visitors crane their necks to make out the bills they expect to see, but this exhibit highlights the euro?s environmentally friendly character by showing the stuff that it?s made of rather than the bills themselves: cotton fibers.
Another exhibit is one of the most ancient coins in the bank?s collection: a small electrum coin from Chios featuring the emblem of the island, a sphinx.
Displays of banknotes from other parts of the world are also impressive. There are banknotes from Cuba adorned with portraits of Che Guevara, from India with Mahatma Gandhi and from Zaire, featuring a gorilla. There is also the first-ever banknote printed, which hails from China and comes with a warning to forgers that they will suffer a terrible punishment if caught.
The museum offers a brief lesson in the history of finance from the invention of the coin in Lydia, Anatolia, in the late 7th century BC and the Ionian Greeks? introduction of electrum coins, which were made of a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver with traces of other metals. It casts a light on the artists who were inspired by the Parthenon to print its motifs on coins and it explains how the world?s first bank was founded, in 1609 in the Netherlands. It also traces the history of the Bank of Greece, which was established in 1927 under the Geneva Protocol, as well as the history of the drachma, plastic money and, more recently, the introduction of the euro.
The basement level of the museum contains displays of bank bonds, including a fascinating bond depicting a female figure with two children and another for 100 billion drachmas. The designs for the bonds, all done by hand and in incredible detail, are kept in drawers that can be opened by visitors, while there are also special display cases showing the templates and shedding light on the fine etchings and prints that were used. Angelos Xenos, the head of the service in charge of the bank?s archives and collections, is at hand to talk visitors through a display of all the tools and instruments used by those who designed and made banknotes and bonds.
It goes without saying that the most popular displays are the gold ingots and coins. The visual delight of the sparkling, well-polished gold bars is complemented by an audio stimulant as well, as the sound of tinkling coins from Pink Floyd?s landmark song ?Money? plays in the background. On a similar pop culture note, there is a projection of the miserly cartoon character Scrooge McDuck taking a dive into a pile of gold coins, as well as a massive photograph of the central bank?s vault — with security-sensitive details photoshopped out, of course.
Budding accountants will take great pleasure in the numbers games and interactive displays set up, one of which takes visitors through the technicalities of applying for and managing a loan, paying close attention to the interest rate.
Young visitors may be dreaming of becoming international financiers as they tour the displays and older visitors may be yearning for the simpler days of the drachma. The most frequent question they ask the museum?s director, Alexandros Stylos, however, is whether the bank is printing drachmas. All the molds, he reassures them, are on display at the museum.