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What can really BIG money teach us about our world?

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Long feathers that shimmer in the light. A formidably heavy stone ring. An iron blade taller than most children. A hoard of ancient coins with hundreds of imperial eyes. It’s almost impossible to walk by these attention-grabbing monetary objects and not want to know about the places they come from and the people who used them. Despite their diversity, they share a special quality: they make us wonder. It is this quality that makes them ideal teaching tools.

These artifacts are now displayed together in the museum’s newest exhibition for children called Really BIG Money. It is designed to teach elementary-aged visitors about world cultures and to promote financial literacy. Children will be able to look, touch, and explore while discovering the stories behind some of the National Numismatic Collection’s biggest pieces of money. Big in size, quantity, or denomination, each piece can teach us about the world around us, including communities and their cultures, the natural environment, political leaders, and the process of exchange. 

Communities and Cultures

About 500 years ago, the shiny, green-blue tail feathers of the male Resplendent Quetzal bird were used by communities in Mexico and Central America to pay taxes to Aztec rulers. With some tail feathers over 20 inches long and irresistibly iridescent, it is not hard to see their appeal. They were not only useful for making payments but also transformed into magnificent headdresses and other special clothing for community leaders, making quetzal tail feathers a central part of Aztec culture. That history remains important to communities in Central America today, and Guatemala honors it by calling its national currency the quetzal and depicting the bird on its coins and banknotes.

Taxidermized quetzal bird perched on a wooden stand. The bird’s luminous green feathers curl beneath it.
Resplendent Quetzal birds, like this one, could survive after having their tail feathers pulled out—and then regrow new feathers. Resplendent Quetzal bird, Guatemala, collected around 1923. Gift of The Honorable Charles E. Hughes. (NU.70088.0001)

The Natural Environment

Copper is one of Sweden’s most plentiful natural resources. During the 1600s, Sweden had an overabundance of copper and relatively little silver, so it created very big copper plates that were used alongside smaller silver coins. These plates were clunky and hefty—some weighing more than 30 pounds—so people relied on sleds to move copper plates long distances in the snow. 

Rectangular, dark copper plate with round indentions at its corners and center
This copper plate was worth 8 dalers and could purchase 4 pigs. 8 daler plate money, Sweden, 1663. Gift of The Chase Manhattan Bank. (1979.1263.02238)

Political Leaders

Ancient Roman emperors were among the first people in the world to put their own faces on coins. As the coins circulated around the Roman Empire, they served as powerful propaganda, letting everyone know who was in charge of their government and economy. In times of trouble, as well as for religious ceremonies, ancient Romans would bury large numbers of coins—sometimes tens of thousands—underground for safekeeping. Some coins were never retrieved, leaving behind coin hoards with important evidence about the history of the Roman Empire and its political leaders. This coin head is made up of 165 coins that were part of a larger coin hoard of more than 550 coins. Its coins feature the portraits of 10 Roman leaders including Galeria Valeria, daughter of Diocletian and wife of his co-emperor Galerius. 

A museum display shaped like a gigantic Roman coin. Smaller coins rim the display and form a bearded face in silhouette.
The museum designed this coin head to resemble a Roman Follis coin featuring a portrait of the Emperor Diocletian that is part of this installation. Follis coins, Ancient Rome, 294 to 312 CE. Gift of Abraham A. Rosen.

The Process of Exchange

This stone ring called a rai is from the island of Yap in the Pacific Ocean and weighs 112 pounds. It was a significant part of the island’s economy but does not work like the coins and banknotes we carry in our pockets. Rai were only used for special kinds of payments, such as wedding gifts, and were often displayed in front of people’s homes to show a family’s importance to the island community. Very heavy rai did not move around the island even after they changed owners.

Large stone shaped like a donut, with a hollow center. One side has cracked and broken away from the rest of the stone
“Rai” range in size from a couple inches to the size of a large car. This “rai” broke when it was moved from one location to another, before the Smithsonian received it. Rai stone ring, island of Yap (Micronesia), 1900s. Gift of Colonel William C. Moore. (NU.72.172.1

Really Big Numbers on Banknotes

After exploring these four key objects and themes, young visitors will encounter banknotes from contemporary Venezuela and from post-World War I Germany, such as a 20 trillion mark note printed in Germany in 1924. Banknotes like this can be shocking to see and might initially seem valuable, but astronomically high numbers on money are often clues that a country and its people are suffering. These objects and related photographs teach the foundational concept that the value of money depends entirely on its context. 

German 20 trillion bank note with text, “Reichsbanote, Zwanzig Billionen Mark”
20 trillion mark note, Germany, 1924. (2019.0050.0137)
Children stack packages of German banknotes into a pyramid
In 1923 German banknotes were worth so little that parents would let kids play with them. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

Play to Learn

The final section of the exhibition promotes learning through play and interaction. Young visitors can measure themselves next to a five-foot, seven-inch currency blade, see their own faces on money through customized mirrors (and take selfies!), and play a touchless Match the Money clue-based game featuring an animated quetzal bird on a magical journey. 

Iron blade
This tall blade was used by a Turumbu community of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for wedding gifts and to purchase important items, such as a canoe. Iron blade (liganda), Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1800s. Gift of Elvira Clain-Stefanelli. (1992.0406.0001)

Really big pieces of money have often been treated as “curiosities” and overlooked in favor of shiny gold coins and crisp modern banknotes. They have remained hidden away in the museum’s vault for too long. As the stars of this new exhibition, they will do the heavy lifting—enabling children to explore the vibrant worlds they come from and helping us to better understand our own. 

Ellen Feingold is the curator of the National Numismatic Collection and project director of Really BIG Money. She co-curated the exhibition with Abby Pfisterer, Orlando Serrano Jr, and Sarah Weicksel.

Really BIG Money was generously made possible by Michael Chou, the Howard F. Bowker Numismatic Projects Endowment Fund, and Bill and Dianne Calderazzo, with additional support from Jeff Garrett, Robert L. Harwell II, and John F. McMullan.



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