British Museum Highlights Strange Money From Around The World

British Museum
What’s this? A knife? A razor? Actually, it’s Chinese currency dating back to the 5th-3rd century B.C. It’s one of the many rare and unusual pieces on display in the newly reopened money gallery at the British Museum in London.

The Citi Money Gallery looks at world history through money, starting with the Bronze Age and going right up to the Age of the Credit Card. This has always been one of my favorite galleries in the British Museum because it shows the artifacts as dynamic parts of society, not simply objects to be admired. Trade, credit and the evolution of the state are all covered.

The refurbished gallery includes some current events as well, such as the rise of payments through mobile phones in Haiti. The 2010 earthquake wrecked the banking sector, and Haitians quickly adopted a form of payment through phone calls that is a leader in the world.

As much as we travelers want to break free of our everyday lives, money matters are still an essential part of travel. Whether it’s discovering that nobody takes credit cards in that remote third-world town or that your American ATM card won’t work in Europe on weekends, money seems to crop up again and again.

Sometimes that can be amusing, like when you change 20 dollars into Somaliland Shillings and get so many 500-shilling notes that you can’t stuff them into your pocket. Possibly the weirdest travel experience I had was in the early ’90s when I went into a bank in Iran and saw a big banner in Farsi and English reading “DEATH TO AMERICA.” Right under it was a teller’s counter with a sign saying “American Express Travelers Checks accepted here.” The Islamic Revolution is all well and good, but business is business.

Exotic foreign money also makes for interesting souvenirs and gifts. Check out our gallery for a sample of money and its use around the world.

[Photo courtesy Mike Peel]

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