Joe Wilson: Is there any value in a £1m cash exhibit?

Cancelled �20 notes on display at the Museum on the Mound, Edinburgh. Picture: Callum Bennetts
Cancelled �20 notes on display at the Museum on the Mound, Edinburgh. Picture: Callum Bennetts
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IN Edinburgh’s Museum on the Mound, £1 million in cash is on display. But what is its true worth, wonders Joe Wilson

It’s a museum I’ve always engaged with, despite never actually setting foot in the door. The Museum on the Mound is the collected history of the Bank of Scotland, situated onsite at their Edinburgh head office where, outside, a sign expertly grabs your attention. “Ever seen £1 million?” No. Implicit in the question is the suggestion that you should come inside, where you can see £1 million, to which I again would say, no, thank you.

A printing plate on display at the Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh. Picture: Callum Bennetts

A printing plate on display at the Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh. Picture: Callum Bennetts

I’m under no illusions that some people will likely feel differently, but personally I cannot muster any interest in going to look at a big pile of unattainable cash. However, the more often I passed the same sign, the more the issue began to bother me, and I eventually started to question whether £1 million in cash should even be a museum exhibit at all. So I asked myself what criteria it needed to meet. Is it of historical or artistic value? No. Can it help me better understand myself, or the community I’m a part of? Not in my opinion.

Furthermore, is it even ethical for a museum to have £1 million in cash in its collection? To accession an object is an implicit acceptance that said item is not a liquid asset, and cannot therefore be deaccessioned for the purposes of generating funds. But cash literally has no other use. To accession £1 million in cash is to ring-fence money that can never now be spent. The Museum on the Mound is fortunate that it is operated by the Lloyds Banking group and is therefore well financed. One would imagine that any other museum that had deliberately written off £1 million in this fashion would find itself particularly dubiously positioned should it then require the reliance of volunteers or heritage funding bodies.

To exhibit any amount of cash, especially in that quantity, with seemingly no context beyond “because we can,” seems slightly vulgar. It was clear, however, that I was going to have to see it, and I was surprised upon arrival to discover that it wasn’t part of the museum display at all. Instead, as staff promptly informed me, it is “just on the right” as you enter the building, in a cabinet in the gift shop. To me this was an immediate suggestion that the museum itself had found similar difficulty in actually justifying a position for it amongst the genuine art and ephemera in their collection. On top of that, the cabinet is filled exclusively with cancelled notes, meaning it isn’t even £1 million cash at all; it’s a box of valueless paper.

All of a sudden this struck me as somewhat of a shame. The cabinet as I had imagined it was, at least, a thought-provoking piece. Further to that, it would have been a challenging exhibit as it refuses to adhere to one of the key museum conventions: that the price of their collections cannot be revealed. Museum objects are not for sale, so they do not have a price. This is the answer any visitor who asks the tired old “how much is that worth?” question should receive.

In a previous job, I was often asked how much Pablo Picasso’s The Poet was worth. I informed the visitor its value was as a key piece in one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century – crucial to the evolving style of arguably the world’s most famous artist – and that it provided a perfect historical context to the rest of the museum’s collection. It strikes me now how interesting it could have been for me to direct those visitors, seemingly interested only in the financial value of the museum, to an exhibit simply of £1 million in cash. To challenge them to actually ascertain for themselves whether this really was the satisfaction they were looking for. £1 million in cash not only unavoidably reveals to the visitor its financial value, but it even shows them the money. One would hope this might inspire people to see more than just dollar signs in the masterpieces on offer.

In a late twist, a second £1 million in cash appears halfway through the museum. Were it not for the fact you have already seen it before, this exhibit would make complete sense. The second box of cash, this time within the museum display, is simply a supporting interpretation for another object, a single £1 million note. The exhibit explains that these notes are solely for transporting large sums internally in the bank, and then uses the same value in £20 denominations to visually depict the practicalities of doing so. This is great. It reveals an interesting internal practice of the bank, as is one of the museum’s aims, and then perfectly interprets the object to help the visitor understand why, in a striking and memorable way.

But this purposeful and effective second display further highlights the elephant in the room that is the first exhibited million. For all my pondering, I still struggle to see what the point of it is. But then, maybe it is in this pondering that it finally finds a purpose. The key to all great museum exhibits is an ability to capture the imagination of the visitor not only during, but to encourage a sustained engagement with it subsequent to, and if possible, prior to their visit. The £1 million cash at the Museum on the Mound has unquestionably achieved this with me, quite possibly to a greater extent than any object before it.

• This is an edited article from I Think Of Icarus, a museum blog run by Glasgow-based writer Joe Wilson. http://ithinkoficarus.com/