‘O Vanity of Age’ – the first line under the first plate of A Rake’s Progress, Hogarth’s genre-defining etchings – kicks off Show Me the Money.
Fresh from Hampshire’s Chawton House Library – owned by Jane Austen’s brother, himself implicated in a financial scandal – this populist and enjoyable touring exhibition has found a perfect new home at Manchester’s People’s History Museum, and is well worth a visit.
The idea behind it, the curators explain, is to show how the financial world has been imagined in art, illustration and photography from 1700 to the present day.
As a financial journalist for BBC Breakfast who struggles daily with how on earth to represent quantitative easing in three instantly understandable graphics, I was, if nothing else, keen to get some ideas.
Speaking at the exhibition’s launch, former BBC Economics Editor-turned J.P.Morgan strategist, Stephanie Flanders, recounted how Sir Isaac Newton invested in the South Sea Company, with disastrous consequences. She noted: “If even the inventor of gravity can forget that what comes up must come down, we all have financial lessons to learn.”
That cautionary tone dominates this exhibition, from familiar Hogarth at the start, to new commission, Black Narcissus, a decade of the FTSE index rendered via video-loop into a spiky post-apocalyptic mountain range.
The best exhibits in this vein include the take-no-prisoners cartoons of Spitting Image founder Peter Fluck, one showing Britain as a drug addict, shooting-up with a pound-marked syringe. Then there’s 1920s Weimar hyperinflation memorabilia and a freakish 100 trillion dollar Zimbabwean banknote, all examples of how Show Me the Money blends art and everyday object to good effect. The Greek drachmas are also wonderfully topical.
And there are some very good objects – an old Barclays ledger noting Dan (sic) Defoe’s borrowings and an original mechanical stock ticker, a device which printed company names and their share prices (the name comes from the sound it made).
Another strength of the exhibition is interactivity. Befitting the spirit of the People’s History Museum, children can put their heads – à la fairground – through the bits of the banknotes usually reserved for the famous and powerful (dear reader, I succumbed). You can also don silk scarves and dress up like a banker, as well as move words around a board to ‘create your own financial satire’.
But in its portrayal of financial bad guys, Show Me the Money arguably overplays its hand. The exhibition’s special commissions include Immo Klink’s Bark, a classic braying banker seated beside a champagne-laden table. Another is Simon Roberts’ montage, Brokers with their hands on their faces. The images are intended to show how the media has stereotyped the financial industry. However there is little attempt here to show bankers in any other way.
More nuanced – and in my view more interesting – are the large photographs taken by Roberts of Merill Lynch’s London offices just before the 2008 financial crisis. The rows of desks include refreshingly human details, like photos of children and boxes of cereal.
Show Me the Money also does well in visualising a world where high-frequency trading and other unfathomable computerised finance has turned the majority of money into little more than internet pulses. Its answer: a spooky photograph of black screens.
Credit cards were introduced to Britain in 1966 with Barclays the first to offer them. One of its posters shows a man with his arms around two women. Armed with his Barclaycard he has, says the bank, a ‘different kind of spending power’. Other adverts feature apparently empowered women, but with the subtext that it’s time they asked hubby for a credit card.
Once again, the images are fascinating, and also serve as a reminder of the wealth of culture in the Manchester area – the home of the Barclays Archive. Having said that, the People’s History Museum is also home to the archive of the Communist Party of Great Britain – as well as the Labour Party – and criticism of credit is never far from the surface.
The People’s History Museum now stands opposite a glittering glass building, with the flashy bars and restaurants of regenerated Spinningfields just around the corner. But Show Me the Money seems unwilling to explore these more optimistic images of the power of credit.
For a lot of people, particularly artists and journalists, money has often been depicted as problematic. While the exhibition is definitely worth seeing, perhaps a truer people’s history might be to show that finance has been, for many, an enabler too.
What: Show Me the Money, The Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present
Where: People’s History Museum, Left Bank, Manchester
When: July 11, 2015 — January 24, 2016; entrance free, donations welcomed