A museum set up by the Reserve Bank of India seeks to demystify money matters for the layperson
Even at the peak of the demonetisation frenzy in November 2016 — when the whole country was seen waiting in queues outside banks and ATMs — few people understood the impact of the move on the economy. The layperson’s discussions on the subject were almost always free of the jargons and technical terms used by people more familiar with the working of the banking system. The average Indian’s economic vocabulary doesn’t go beyond a few basics, though the internet is always on standby.
A new museum in Kolkata, however, seeks to improve people’s knowledge of the banking system with the help of interactive displays. And it’s been put together by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the central banking institution that is synonymous with the Indian currency.
Located on Council House Street in central Kolkata, this RBI museum comes 21 years after the Mumbai headquarters inaugurated the country’s first “monetary museum”. The stately red-and-white building in Kolkata, constructed by M/S Martin and Burn — the same firm that built the city’s iconic Victoria Memorial, has a glorious past. “The four-storey structure initially housed the Alliance Bank of Simla, one of the oldest banks in the country. In 1935, the building was leased to the RBI — which was founded in the same year,” says Subhadip Mukherjee, a Kolkata-based blogger who writes on heritage, travel and food. He adds that this building is where the first meeting of RBI shareholders was held under the supervision of Sir Osborne Smith, its first governor. The operations of the RBI moved to a building on the nearby Netaji Subhas Road a few years later.
The museum, inaugurated on March 11 this year, has given a new lease of life to the original address of the RBI in what was once British India’s capital.
A huge money tree made using defunct coins and demonetised currency notes marks the main entry to the museum while a giant one-rupee coin greets you inside the building. The ground floor is divided into three sections: History of Money, History of Gold and History of RBI. The first section depicts the evolution of the barter system and the use of grains as currency in 3000 BC. It then walks you through the course of further evolution that brings you to money in its current form. The section on gold, expectedly, focuses on gold reserves in the country.
Senior RBI officials say that the idea for the museum popped up during a newsibition (news and exhibition) held in the same building in 2012. “We decided to establish a museum where people would be made aware about various aspects of banking and finance and also the history of the RBI,” says Suddhasattwa Ghosh, general manager, RBI Kolkata. It took seven years to give a final shape to the idea.
The museum has been designed jointly by a team of RBI officials and Creative Museum Designers (CMD), a Kolkata-based company under the National Council of Science Museums. Says Subrata Sen, managing director of CMD, “We started work on the museum in 2017 and the aim was to use storytelling as a tool to create financial literacy. It was quite a challenge to make sure that the serious story of finance is told in a playful way so that even a novice grasps knowledge that could be of use in his/her daily life.” The games offer lessons on the importance of banks and the ways to safeguard currency. Sen adds that these are of particular interest to school students.
In fact, the mezzanine floor with interactive games is a centre of attraction. A particular favourite is the game of dice. It explains financial planning through a round of snakes and ladder. Also popular is the cinematic treat on the journey of money — from vaults to briquettes of shredded currency notes. This can be viewed through the eyehole of a bioscope machine that was once a common sight at village fairs and haats (weekly markets).
More than 2,500 people have visited the museum till date — the numbers are not overwhelmingly large but the RBI officials are not complaining. The footfall of students has been the most heartening sight for the team behind the museum. “They are sharing their experience on social media, which, in turn, has encouraged some others to visit,” says Ghosh. He says the free entry should also be an incentive for visitors.
If all goes well, the remaining floors of the building will also be converted into new sections of the museum.
As a token of appreciation, the RBI is handing out souvenirs to the museum’s visitors. It’s not a wad of multi-coloured currency notes but something of greater value — a certificate bearing the visitor’s name that’s hand-printed on a century-old machine.