Money in many shapes and sizes

Anthropologists’ Money Bag showcases currencies from across cultures and historical periods

By Catherine Lin  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Jun 14, 2018 - Page 13

A pack of cigarettes, a carbon emissions permit and a carved stone twice the height of a human may seem to have little in common, but they do share one feature: They have all been used as currency. Anthropologists’ Money Bag, an exhibition currently on view at Academia Sinica’s Museum of the Institute of Ethnology, showcases these and other currencies from across cultures and historical periods.

Curated by Guo Pei-yi (郭佩宜), an associate research fellow, the exhibition aims to explore the varied forms and functions currency can take.

“Currency in practice is continually undergoing a dynamic negotiation process,” states a quote on one wall.

The exhibition consists of five sections: monies of the world, how money acquires its value, money and the state, what happens when different currencies meet and monies of the new century.

The exhibition is located in a small, raised, brightly lit area set apart from the museum’s main rooms, creating a cozy atmosphere that contrasts sharply with the more serious long-term exhibitions. The numerous colorful interactive elements — doors set in the wall to open and shut or a container filled with cardboard cutouts of different objects used as currency around the world — ensure that the exhibition is accessible for people of all ages.

Anthropologists’ Money Bag’s playfulness does not detract from its academic value, however, and the provided “Exhibition Concepts” prompt visitors to ponder complex questions, such as: “What are the symbolic and political meanings of currency?” and “How do systems of currency impact our social life?”

The displays are effectively designed to expand visitors’ conceptions of what currency can be, do and mean, with an emphasis on breadth over depth.


Particularly thought-provoking are the explanations of currency’s use in ritual. One portion concerns bridewealth, a payment presented by the bride’s family to that of the groom, often in a special currency; another discusses the tradition of burning “spirit money” at funerals.

Ultimately, visitors come away from the exhibition understanding that money is a tool different cultures adapt to different ends to suit their needs — whether Solomon Islanders trading cowrie shells or American prison gangs exchanging instant noodles.

The Anthropologists’ Money Bag also seeks the public’s input on how they conceptualize money: A wall covered with Post-it notes responding to the statement, “Imagine there’s no money,” is as compelling as the more formal displays. Here, the exhibition’s pragmatic and objective view of currency gives way to more emotional perspectives.

“No currency is very scary, but no goods are even scarier,” reads one. “Classless society,” “Happy,” and “World peace!” all make an appearance. “Impossible” occurs twice, once in English, and once in Mandarin.

The Post-it notes demonstrate that a more extensive examination of systems of exchange that are not reliant on currencies, such as gift economies or barter systems, would have been a helpful addition, demonstrating that a world without money would not necessarily mean a world without property ownership or trade, nor would it be a utopia.

While the exhibition provides an interesting and informative dive into currency’s relationship with state legitimacy and autonomy, it lacks a significant consideration of the economic and labor systems (sometimes forced) facilitated or necessitated by various currency systems.

Nevertheless, the exhibition succeeds at creatively bringing a scholarly topic to life in an easily digestible manner. The wide range of cultures it manages to pack into such a limited amount of space is admirable, and the questions it raises are certainly worth contemplating. Jumping from 19th century western Africa to present-day Greece and back again, Anthropologists’ Money Bag criss-crosses the globe to offer a well-organized and insightful — if brief — look at an everyday and ubiquitous object.