If you find yourself at a loose end in Johannesburg’s CBD on a weekday, you’re in a perfect position to visit the Barclays Money Museum, the only banking and money museum in South Africa.
The Money Museum is home to an extensive collection of the many currencies that have flowed into South Africa over the centuries. From Katanga crosses, Manilla rings, cowrie shells and venetian glass beads, to the global currencies that arrived with prospectors in search of diamonds and gold, the Money Museum has plenty of cold hard cash.
Looking at money can tell you a lot about a country, as the Museum’s curator Dr Paul Bayliss will tell you. Currency is an immediate, tangible aspect of a country’s identity, one that reflects its values, history, economy and society. ‘If you look at our bank notes, we’ve got Madiba on them at the moment, but before that we had the Big Five; prior to that, we had an individual that was supposedly meant to be Jan van Riebeek. (It wasn’t.),’ says Dr Bayliss. ‘Beyond those, there are other aspects on that note that reflect the agriculture, the industry, the environment, and the tourism of the country – so suddenly the note becomes that ambassador, that allows you to see what the country is actually about’.
Many visitors are drawn to the Museum for nostalgic reasons, the chance to come face to face with lost time. ‘People come in here and love the saving boxes,’ says Bayliss. ‘Whether you’re 80 or 40, you can remember having one of these saving boxes; we’ve got them dating back 200 odd years. So there’s something here for everyone in that sense; that nostalgic element.’
Also on display is some of the technology that has been used in banking over the centuries. This, says Bayliss, is aimed particularly at today’s youth, who come from a world where technology has advanced at a staggering rate, with today’s necessities – cellphones, the Internet, email – all being recent inventions. ‘In the last 20 years we’ve had this rapid advance – that’s really what we’re showing through the technology,’ says Bayliss. ‘The fax machine, for example, invented in the late ’80s, revolutionised how business worked. Suddenly you could put a document in and it would “pop out” the other side. You didn’t have to post it.’ Nevertheless, history leaves its mark on today’s appliances. For example, Bayliss notes that the traditional Qwerty keyboard was specifically designed to slow one down while typing. ‘The old typewriters had keys that went up and down; if you typed too quickly, the keys jammed,’ he explains. ‘It was only when they brought out the electronic typewriter, which used the rollerball, that one was able to type a lot quicker without the risk of keys jamming.’ And yet most keyboards continue to feature the Qwerty keyboard, presumably because it is so familiar. ‘In this respect the Museum aims to unpack technology and history,’ says Bayliss. ‘At the same time we say to people, whenever you go into a museum – don’t view it as you would view the world today. Try picturing what was happening in the world at that particular time… Look at what you’ve got, and then go read up on it. We encourage youngsters that come into the Museum, on the one hand to save, because as South Africans we don’t have a saving culture; and secondly, to read. By reading you stretch your imagination and experience the world…’
To get the most out of the Museum, it’s worth making an appointment for a guided tour (to do this, email the Museum at firstname.lastname@example.org). The Museum also provides guided tours to school groups of not more than 25 students, from grade seven upwards (by appointment only). The tour lasts between 90 minutes to two hours, and is tailored towards each class; when making a booking, teachers should have an idea of what they want to achieve through the visit.
Otherwise, the Museum is open to the public from Monday to Friday between 08:00 and 16:00. ‘Anyone’s welcome, you don’t need to make an appointment, although you will be required to show some ID,’ says Dr Bayliss. ‘If you’d like us to book parking for you, that can be arranged, just phone us in advance.’ There is also a canteen where visitors can buy a cup of coffee or something to eat. Best of all, entry to the museum is free – so you can keep your own collection of currency safely in your pocket.