Drachma’s star role in NYC exhibit

NEW YORK – The Federal Reserve is hoping the power of money will lure visitors to a lower Manhattan exhibit even as attendance at other downtown museums has dropped by half since the attack on the World Trade Center. Just a few steps from the now-destroyed Twin Towers, the display includes currencies ranging from ancient Greek drachmas, Europe’s oldest currency that has just been displaced by euros, to bamboo-framed salt bars to ornate gold coins – all money, depending on where and when you lived. The American Numismatic Society exhibit, «Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money,» opened on Wednesday at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and its organizers hope it will contribute to the gradual revival of Lower Manhattan as a vibrant museum center. Financial world luminaries Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and William McDonough, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, officially opened the exhibit at a ceremony, with Greenspan lauding money as one of the great inventions of mankind and a marker of civilization. «Its form at any particular period of history reflects the degree of confidence or the degree of trust that market participants have in the institutions that govern every market system – whether centrally planned or free,» Greenspan said. A collapse in a monetary system often is coupled with political and economic chaos – witness Argentina, which this month faced street riots over a prolonged recession and abandoned the peso’s fixed value to the US dollar. Confidence in money is essential in modern times because holding money has become an act of faith that the government will honor its value. This is called fiat money since it no longer is backed by gold or other commodities. As Greenspan quipped, «If the evident recent success of fiat money regimes falter, we may have to go back to seashells or oxen as our medium of exchange.» The exhibition comes at a pivotal moment for the world’s currencies – especially in Europe, where for the first time since the Roman Empire a single coinage is being used. Europe’s oldest currency, the nearly 2,000-year-old Greek drachma, has become one of the 12 currencies replaced by the euro. It highlights the significance of money throughout history as political propaganda, artwork and a reflection of social climate and economy. Coined money first appeared in China almost at the same time as it did in Greece, but early Chinese coins took the shape of agricultural tools, such as spades and knives. In India, the first coins were punch-marked silver ingots. But after contact with Alexander the Great and later Roman merchants, Indian coinage eventually imitated that of ancient Greece and Rome. Christian imagery began to appear on coins in the fourth century AD, when Byzantium became the site of the new, Christian capital of the Roman Empire and was renamed Constantinople. In contrast, Islamic coinage shunned portraits or other figural images, bearing religious inscriptions instead. The first American president, George Washington, rejected the idea of putting his face on official currency, even though he is now the universal face of the US dollar, said Ute Wartenberg, executive director of the American Numismatic Society and former curator of Greek coins at the British Museum. Washington’s ubiquitous «credit face» wasn’t always taken for legal tender, however. After the Revolution, individual states struck their own coins until the US Mint was established in 1792. Even the setting up of an official US Mint did not stop production of a variety of coinage in North America, especially as pioneers pushed the American frontier westward. The Mormons who settled in Salt Lake City produced some of their own coinage, as did those who discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in north California. The exhibit is housed in a building that holds great significance in the history of money, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a landmark building constructed in 1924. The 5,000-square-foot exhibition space appears in the same ornate design it was in during the 1920s, when it was used for banking transactions. Downtown New York museums have had a tough time drawing crowds after the Sept. 11 attacks. The National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, have both seen attendance fall by about 50 percent.

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