Barings in America

Review

of an Exhibition

by Liz Billy

Published on April 13, 2013, Modified on August 20, 2013

  • Description:

    As you walk into the Museum of American Finance, your eye catches a large sketch on the wall. Windows and bricks are drawn on the wall giving the illusion of an old building’s exterior, but the door is real. The door itself is one of the iron doors from the bank, but it is open wide and inviting. You catch the name of the exhibition, “Barings in America,” and have to stop yourself from walking in without any context. You wonder, who are the Barings?

    “Barings in America” is an exhibition designed for visitors interested in participation. Set up as a game, it will appeal to adults and families, as well as school groups 5th grade and older. Adults with prior knowledge of the subject area will be able to see historic objects linked to some of the most important financial moments in our nation’s history, including the Louisiana Purchase and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). Families with older children may enjoy the competitive aspect of the game, competing against each other and the Baring Brothers’ historic choices. Economic concepts may be too advanced for children under the age of 12, but the competitive aspect may be very appealing to socially minded middle school students. As a twenty-something, I enjoyed the game, even recommending it for my father in his 60s.

    The exhibition is centered on the Big Idea of investment that with great risks, there can be huge financial gains and huge losses. The Baring Brothers made many investments that shaped American history. They researched their choices and had to make decisions about the risky investments. As with investing today, they had some huge gains as well as losses. Fortunately for the Baring Brothers, with great risk came great reward with some of their investments.

    At the beginning of the exhibition, there are two main exhibit panels to read as background knowledge. The first sets up the idea of the game; the visitor will act as a start-up investment bank and will need to make careful decisions based on the information they receive inside. The second panel describes the origins of the Baring Brothers in relation to the investment world. I read the game rules thoroughly, as they were concise, but I chose not to read the Baring family biography until after I finished the game. I was eager to start.

    Inside the iron door, there were five individual sections featuring an investment choice with a case of objects. Behind the cases, there were large photographs printed on fabric that hung from the ceiling. These oversized photographs made it easy to recognize what the investment was about, with a wasteland landscape, busy street scene with telephone poles, shipyard, train engine, and men in uniforms on bicycles. Just looking at these pictures gave me an image of the time and place of these investments. Inside the cases were objects, some of which were reproductions. These objects varied from letters to advertisements and brochures. There were a few prospectus papers as well as bonds and an accounting ledger book. I did not take the time to read these objects carefully, as the script was very small and hard to read. Most of the information I used to make my decisions came from the text panel about each investment. Each panel described the dilemma faced by the Baring Brothers – dishonesty in American speculators or America has little credit. The central theme was that there was a major opportunity to be found, but each seemed risky. Each panel ended with a question, steering the visitor to think about the decision carefully, such as “Do you want to seize the opportunity?”

    Following this room, there was another room, sectioned off by temporary walls. In the middle was a large table with brochures and pencils in the middle. There were four iPads with the investment app loaded and ready to go. I entered in my decisions, choosing to invest in Maine, the Louisiana Purchase, the railroad, and AT&T. Maine broke even but the railroad was a bust. I made major financial gains by my investments in the Louisiana Purchase and AT&T. I struggled to get the iPad to work at times.

    Cloth hung as a banner for walls, with photographs and portraits printed directly on it. Panels described the success or failure of the investments. I read a little more about the decisions and found out that even though one deal was not a lucrative investment, it gave the Barings Brothers a social advantage that later helped them in business deals for the future. The wording on the labels was simple enough that I could understand it, but gave enough information. I was curious to learn more about some other investments that were not included. Outside of the exhibition there was a large timeline of events for the Baring Brothers, which I discovered eventually became part of ING bank, the sponsor of the exhibition.

    I found the exhibition relevant as a way to think about investment decisions. I have often been intimidated by finance, but curious to learn more. This exhibition gave me a chance to safely practice investing, while learning about American history. The central theme of the role of risk in investment, coupled with the importance of research and analysis, is a lesson I can take with me when I choose to invest. The exhibition made the topic accessible, rather than intimidating or overwhelming. By selecting five investments, I could focus my attention and really try to analyze what I would do if I were in the shoes of an investor.

    There are supporting materials located online for this exhibition. Online visitors can play the game, called “Dividend & Conquer,” that is the same as the one featured in the exhibition. Small summaries are provided, but not all of the text featured in person. Some images are available. For a visitor looking to continue the experience, they can repeat what they tried out at the museum. For a visitor unable to come in person, they can try out the game while investigating at home.

    I found “Barings in America” to be an effective exhibition. Sometimes the concept of risk in investment may seem too abstract. Using actual investments from history, some of which had huge impacts on American history, this concept seemed easier to use. The competitive nature of the game was fun, comparing my choices to others through the iPad, though I am curious if a more low-tech option might have been easier to use. I wish the brochures and pencils were available at the beginning at the entrance, so that I could have taken notes as I went. Overall, I felt the flow of the exhibition made sense, making all the decisions at the end. I was able to take my time at each of the panels for the investments and glance over the materials. It sparked an interest in investment for me, which feels like the biggest sign of success for any exhibition.

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