That Clinking Clanking Sound can Make the World go ‘Round

The Money Museum documents the country’s history with cold hard cash

Money is ubiquitous; after all it makes the world go round. However, for a medium so universal there is a lot of mystery enshrouding it, with the internal machinations of reserve banks and high finance often regarded with suspicion by the public. We may gamble with it, hoard it, lose it, make it, even define power and value(s) by it – yet it’s still considered vulgar to talk about it.

Enter the Austrian National Bank’s (OeNB) Money Museum, keen to set the fiscal record straight. Ironically, admission is free, quietly advertised by a golden plaque outside the OeNB headquarters.

With both a seasonal and a permanent exhibition, one might expect treasure and bullion, but apart from the initiation rite at the entrance – where visitors are invited to try lifting a gold bar in a plastic see-through vault – there is not much bling to be seen.

Instead, there are Bronze Age coins with a patina sheen and Habsburg silver,  seemingly fading to grey. Though quite conservative in its presentation, what at first seems like brittle bits of paper comes to life as the oil in the gears of history, economy and politics. By tracking legal tender through the ages, the Money Museum sheds light on the tidal turbulence of currencies, demystifies money and paints a picture of Austria’s history and national identity.

Two centuries of high finance

Currently on display is a special exhibit commemorating the OeNB’s bicentennial with 200 years worth of artifacts and trivia, starting with the replacement of coins with paper money under Empress Maria Theresia. Though currency is often thought of as a source of stability, the history of the national bank is marked by constant fluctuation and change. Founded on June 1, 1816, the bank was off to a rocky start, created to stabilize the precarious financial situation resulting from Austria’s Napoleonic Wars. As one of the first stock exchanges and a major contributor to European fiscal policy, the institution overcame numerous financial crises as well as occasional insolvency.

Photo: Österreichische Nationalbank
© Österreichische Nationalbank

Over the years, it had to adapt to sociopolitical circumstances, with changing administrations determining both power structures and currencies. In 1938, the OeNB was liquidated; as Austria merged into Germany, the Schilling was replaced with the Reichsmark. In the immediate  post-war era, the American authorities set up their headquarters in the building and facilitated the reintroduction of the Schilling (at the rate of 10 Schillings to the Dollar) as well as the reestablishment of the republic. As the new millennium began, the Euro shaped the common market we know today. These currencies literally document Austria’s shifting allegiances and portray national identity.

Other notable highlights include Ludwig van Beet-hoven’s stock shares (the maestro was a shrewd investor) and Gustav Klimt’s banknote designs – rejected at the time because they did not fulfill popular standards.

The museum also points out how systems of value have varied in times of economic crisis, when tradable goods became de facto currency, such as gold, cigarettes, eggs, or even rainbow-colored marbles, salt, or stickers. Notoriously hard to appraise, it underlines the relativity of worth – after all, cash in itself is merely metal discs and heavy paper.

It’s what it symbolizes that gives it value, yet money is made from materials too. You will find a fascinating overview of how cash is manufactured, from design, production to distribution. With artwork engraved on copper plates, then printed on cotton paper and embellished with watermarks and shiny holographs, you can see the ingredients that go into the making. Raw metal Euros without their embossed motifs seem naked and robbed of their purpose.

Providing buttons, games, stickers and educational pamphlets to take home, the Money Museum also sees itself as a teaching aid: From money’s origins to its cultural and scientific capital, it is rich in facts and demystifies monetary fictions.

Tue & Wed 9:30-15:30; Thu 9:30-17:30; Fri 9:30-13:30

Sat-Mon & holidays: closed 

Nina Prader
Nina Prader is an artist and arts and culture writer who lives and works in Vienna and Berlin and has been with Metropole from the start.

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