On the money

The Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago’s Money Museum, partly designed by the late Illya Furlonge-Walker, does more than display coins and banknotes

A display on the Trinidadian oil pioneer John Lee Lum, who minted his own money – square metal tokens – in the early twentieth- century. Photograph by Mark LyndersayA reducing machine, once used to transfer the design of a coin from a large model to an actual-size punch. Photograph by Mark LyndersayExamples of the British coinage that was legal tender in Trinidad and Tobago before Independence. Photograph by Mark LyndersayIllya Furlonge-Walker, who designed many key components of the museum. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe entrance to the Money Museum, with the large graphic designed by Illya Furlonge-Walker. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe Money Museum traces the evolution of the Trinidad and Tobago economy. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe museum also covers the history of the Central Bank itself. Photograph by Mark LyndersayTools of the minting trade. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

You can heft a bar of gold, see myriad credit and debit cards in a stylish mosaic, and play an interactive investment game to teach you about one of the trickiest parts of the modern economy — and those are just some of the charms of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago’s Money Museum. Located on the ground floor of the bank’s twin-towered headquarters at 1 St Vincent Street, Port of Spain, the museum is an easy-to-navigate virtual tour through not only the bank and its operations, but the entire history of money in the world and in Trinidad and Tobago in particular.

“The idea of the museum came out of the bank’s desire to reach the national community in a different way,” says Nicole Crooks, the bank’s Senior Manager, Human Resource and Corporate Communications, who is ultimately in charge of the museum. “This is the business of the bank, and the museum was a way to communicate with an audience, from young to old, what the bank is about.”

Designed by a committee over a period of several years and spanning several bank governor terms, the museum is divided into three sections, called World Money, History of Money in Trinidad and Tobago, and Central Bank — Guardian of the Financial System of Trinidad and Tobago. Each section includes displays in traditional museum cases with clear and easy-to-follow signage, and some sections also feature interactive components such as the aforementioned games.

“One of the primary objectives is to demystify the bank,” Crooks says. “People see us as a stoic, clinical, bureaucratic organisation — and we don’t see ourselves as that type of organisation.”

Each section of the museum devotes some space to general talk of money and money systems; the first section, for example, discusses the birth of coins, and there’s even a block of Chinese tea, once used as money, alongside the beads and other doodads that have been considered currency over time in different parts of the world. Greek bronze, African cowries, and Lydian gold are some of the objects you can find in the glass boxes. An old minting machine from the British Royal Mint that once used to mint Trinidad and Tobago fifty-cent pieces takes pride of place in this section.

The second section traces the evolution of the local economy, from Amerindian adornos — a kind of clay pottery figurine — to today’s crisp, modern notes. The museum pays significant attention to the trade in enslaved Africans, which was for a few centuries the heart of the West Indian economy. Bills of exchange, which represented slaves and other goods, played a part in the evolution of paper money, as the display shows. The two islands in the republic weren’t united until a little over a century years ago; Tobago used to mint its own money, and there are examples of it in the museum.

Also in this section is a slice of the fascinating history of local banking. Trinidad had its own indigenous banks long before Independence from Britain came in 1962, the first being the famous “Penny Bank”, founded in 1914 in a building that still stands in Port of Spain. Even before that, there was a slave savings bank, which had existed since the early nineteenth century. With banks came money, and as there was no central bank, each bank printed its own notes, which were legal tender.

In the museum’s final section, among other information on the bank’s building and functions, you can find examples of correspondence between the bank and the International Monetary Fund. Trinidad and Tobago went through a tremendous oil boom during the 1970s, followed by a financial crash during the 1980s. The IMF was invited to help restructure the economy, and the Central Bank, as the government’s banker, was involved. For those who remember the bust and the recession, it can be a bit chilling to see the letters “IMF” on these documents, as the institution was blamed for every hardship visited on the population during the restructuring.

The money museum’s curator, Lorraine Johnson, gives tours of the facility twice daily, mostly to schoolchildren, but other interested groups can also book tours. The tours are free; you can also choose to buy the museum guidebook and take a self-guided tour. From time to time, the museum and the bank host exhibitions that may or may not have anything to do with money; there have been two so far, one a philatelic and numismatic exhibition held in conjunction with the Solid Waste Management Company, and the other an exhibition of Carnival photographs. Next year the bank plans to hold a tribute to the great masman Cito Velasquez, a master wire-bender who died earlier this year.

The money museum’s bottom line is an experience that isn’t dry and starchy. “We encourage questions, dialogue, laughter” during the tours, Johnson says. It’s also a very accessible experience. “The information in the museum was designed to be understood by the average twelve-year-old,” she says, though she adds that the size and the storyline are a lot to take in. The average tour takes about an hour and a half. In its first year the museum had some three thousand visitors. While there are no immediate plans for expansion, “We’re hoping the museum can be developed and sustained,” Johnson says.

Remembering Illya Furlonge-Walker

Designer Illya Furlonge-Walker conceived, among other things, the graphic that arcs over the entrance to the money museum and the visual display in its final section. The museum was among the last projects Illya worked on. Born in 1967, he died of cancer in February 2006 after a year-long illness. Like many of his design projects, the arc of giant bills and coins is clean and spare but effective. It was his signature style, present in the work he did for the The Caribbean Review of Books, a sister publication of Caribbean Beat, and all his clients. A team dedicated to that same philosophy is carrying on the company Illya founded, Form and Function Design.

A designer since his teens, Illya is remembered by one of his friends as “a creative star.” “Illya worked diligently to make his company stand out from the clutter,” recalls Sonja Younglao in an American Chamber of Commerce newsletter. “His standard joke among his employees, when clients wanted their work done immediately, was ‘Let’s just press that Instant Graphic Button’.”

Illya was working on the redesign of the Central Bank logo, as well as signage for the lobby and auditorium of the bank, when he fell ill in September 2004. Having started his career in print media, he had recently begun to branch out into rebranding and work on buildings, and he did similar projects with BP Trinidad and Tobago, British Gas T&T, and SuperPharm. But working with the Central Bank was, in a way, coming full circle for him. About ten years before he died, Illya had designed a one-dollar coin for the bank, but the design was never used.

Illya was a devoted son to his parents Ian and Nancy, husband to his wife Carla, and father to his son Noah. He leaves them to mourn, along with his sisters Petal and Rachael, and brother Clint. He is also much missed by everyone at Media and Editorial Projects, the publishers of Caribbean Beat.