The "Mu$eum of American Finance"? Yes, It's Real

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 8/23/2009 09:59:00 AM
A few weeks ago, I visited the Bank of England Museum. While it was certainly an informative enough trip, it certainly lacked any information on the BoE's massive attempts to resuscitate the British economy via unprecedented "quantitative easing" (code words for currency debasement for those like yours truly.) Monetary policy is of interest to a limited audience.

It was thus with great interest that I read about the Mu$eum of American Finance (their spelling, not mine--see the image above) in the pages of today's New York Times. As with many other institutions reliant on the support of wealthy benefactors, it is facing a challenge during these difficult economic times. However, the financial crisis is particularly salient for an institution dedicated to cataloging the plight of American finance whose main contributors have been Wall Street titans--many of which have since moved on to the Great Balance Sheet in the Sky:
The Museum of American Finance was faced with an awkward situation recently: some of the corporate sponsors of the museum — dedicated to glories of free markets — had, well, failed. Rather than fretting, the museum tapped its own entrepreneurial spirit and mounted an exhibit — “Tracking the Credit Crisis” — that reveals what the museum’s president, Lee Kjelleren, calls the “greed, recklessness and arrogance” of Wall Street.

Probably not what Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch or the American International Group had in mind when they donated money to the museum. But in the wake of the financial crisis, attendance at the museum — located at 48 Wall Street, near the epicenter of last year’s market collapse — has risen to about 200 visitors a day, nearly double its tally last summer. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art averages that many visitors almost every 90 seconds.)

And where else can you buy a poster for just $12 chronicling the lowlights of the credit crisis — so many, in fact, that it’s a five-poster set? Among the biggest attractions for visitors? The morbid curiosity of a financial train wreck. “This is about the market crashing,” said Lizzie McNeely, 26, a high school teacher from Toronto, as she wandered around the museum one recent afternoon. “I am interested in how they are going to represent that.”

For the $8 price of admission (or free Tuesday to Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m. through October), visitors who have seen enough van Goghs at the Met and Pollocks at the Museum of Modern Art can get a detailed look at the events that brought the global economy to its knees.

The most popular sections of the exhibit, Mr. Kjelleren said, describe so-called toxic assets and how these were exported from America around the world — “As if the rest of the world didn’t already love America enough!” — as well as the dubious role of the ratings agencies in concealing the riskiness of subprime mortgages and the securities based on their values...

Mr. Kjelleren, a former banker for JPMorgan, said, “The idea was to create an awareness of the nature of the driving forces that affected everybody’s lives.” One of the best measures of the scale of the crisis is not on display, but can be found in museum literature detailing its corporate sponsorships.

Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo generously opened their wallets here a year ago, long before they became part of Exhibit A in a display on the financial crisis. And Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch are effectively gone, and American International Group is a shadow of its former self. The government owns nearly 80 percent of that company.
This is an intriguing, feel-good story on several levels. In some ways, it is a truer reflection of capitalism's dynamics in a post-subprime era: A former Wall Street insider given an honorary position to watch over a museum dedicated to extolling the glories of high finance suddenly finds himself in the unexpected position of providing for a suddenly orphaned institution as its benefactors are laid low. Rather than give in, he decides to tell the truth of what's happened even if it paints them in a bad light--and so far has been rewarded.

Certainly, I would be very glad to pay the $8 entrance fee to visit this place if I'm ever in New York. Until then, we can visit the MOAF's online feature. Plus, you can download the timeline made famous by the NYT. As history has demonstrated, capitalism has a way of regenerating itself and, yes, learning from its excesses.