Smithsonian Institution exhibit reviews the concept of money

Jeff Garrett, American Numismatic Association president-elect, speaks just before the official opening of the Smithsonian Institution's new "The Value of Money" exhibit.

?The National Numismatic Collection is one of this nation’s great treasures and its new exhibit “The Value of Money” showcases items that trace the concept of money from its earliest origins to today’s digital currencies.

The concept of money is a powerful one, representing as it does the idea that various media are considered to hold value, whether that value be based on some imagined intrinsic value or simply faith in the issuer of the money.  For those of us in the collecting community, money takes on special meaning as something to be collected for artistic and historical worth.

The word “money” itself is ancient, believed to have originated in a temple to the goddess Juno, situated on Capitoline, one of Rome’s famous seven hills. A Juno Moneta temple at Rome is believed to have been a mint. Roman coinage, of course, counts among the earliest coins, preceded by the first true coins issued in Lydia and by the earliest Greek coins, plus various coin-like objects issued in China.

The new exhibit of the National Numismatic Collection at the Museum of American History helps explain money — what it is, how it arose, how different cultures view different things as having value, of being “money.”

The concept of what has value can differ among cultures. Take a simple thing like a rock.

If you show someone who grew up in a Western culture a round piece of rock with a central hole and tell him that it that it is money, he’s likely to scoff and say that it’s just a rock. Show the same Westerner another rock and point out the threads of gold running through it, and he’ll probably agree that this rock has value, simple because of the mineral running through it. On Yap Island in the Pacific Ocean, the results would likely be reversed. The resident of Yap would prize the round stone as money and very possibly view the rock containing the gold as having no real value.

Both cultures have identified different rocks as having value, as being money; it’s all a matter of perspective about a particular physical object.

However, money no longer has to be a physical object — a coin, a Federal Reserve note, a piece of Yap money or a gold nugget. Increasingly, digital forms of money are growing in acceptance.

Consider Bitcoin, a form of money or exchange  that exists primarily in the digital universe. Bitcoins are nothing more than bits and bytes, and yet they are now being used as money. Bitcoin is the logical next step in money, the child of credit cards and online payments through your bank; none of these involve physical exchanges of a coin or note to complete a transaction, and yet most of us are perfectly content with using such payment methods as money.

The Smithsonian exhibit, of course, has a lot that appeals to traditionalists — 1804 dollars, gold coins and paper money, and more. For the noncollector, “The Value of Money” exhibit helps viewers understand the many concepts of money, from a Yap Island stone, to a traditional coin, to a credit card.

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