Paris, France — Cowrie shells, 60,000 red feathers, brass ankle bracelets, precious cotton fabric, basketwork, sea snails. It is easy to understand the dramatic fall of crypto currency when one discovers what currencies have been made of throughout the world and throughout the ages. Currency is made to last, to be held, to be shown or hidden, to be traded over counters, as dowry, to pay for war reparations. Currencies were shaped by traditions and beliefs and the ceremonial. An exhibition entitled Currencies and Wonders showcasing currencies from around the world is underway at La Monnaie de Paris, the Paris mint (still in operation) which was founded in 864 and sits on the Left Bank of the Seine. It is the oldest institution in France and one of the oldest manufactures in the world.
The exhibition, being held in the majestic front rooms of La Monnaie overlooking the Seine, offers a journey into the various shapes, materials and uses of currency through the ages for transactions come about in diverse forms and a currency is also an expression of rank, prestige and wealth. Gold, silver, feathers, shells, currency astonishes through the ages. Rolls of feathers from the Santa Cruz Islands in Polynesia, textiles from Timor, the bracelet currency of the Côte d’Ivoire, men and women the world over have come up with myriad ways to exchange. Some were exhibited, some were kept secret. The show brings together 200 objects offering a discovery of monetary rituals from around the world. The currency of the Mumuye people of Nigeria take the shape of a snake bouquet for example while the Boiken people of Papua New Guinea have the talipun currency, one of the most famous in Oceania, made of rattan and organic materials and topped off with a sea snail shell.
In Africa where blacksmiths were revered and feared because of their ability to master fire, currencies in metals were widely prized. For example a heavy ankle bracelet from the Côte d’Ivoire weighing in at 8.8 pounds (four kilos) forged in a brass alloy was too heavy to wear but instead was used in business transactions or a marriage between two families. The people of Oceania, great seafarers, used a host of creative processes in their quest for objects of material and spiritual exchanges. There were the monumental sculpted stone money from Yap Island in Micronesia which still dot the island. The Tolai people of the Bismarck Archipelago in Melanesia travelled far and wide to procure from the Nakanai coastal population tiny white nassa seashells which would be sun bleached and strung onto large rings of rattan which until up to the end of the 19th century functioned as a « savings account » and was the only currency used by the Tolai people and the « savings accounts » were only shown to others during funerals or ceremonies.
The exhibition was curated by Bérénice Geoffroy-Schneiter an art historian specialized in the symbolism of non-western jewelry and adornments. « Far from being exhaustive, I conceived this exhibition as a gigantic curiosity cabinet inviting the public to question the practices and beliefs attached to monetary customs throughout the world, » she said.
The show is also a tribute to the anonymous men and women who created these often beautiful and highly artistic objects as the world becomes increasingly virtual and de-materialized. In addition to the show you can also visit La Monnaie de Paris, a working mint, attend workshops and conferences and visit the highly original boutique.
©Trish Valicenti for The Gourmet Gazette
Exhibition until September 25th
Free entry to the museum and exhibition until August 31st
11 Quai de Conti
75006 Paris, France
+33 (0)40 46 57 57