Cha-ching! Federal Reserve's Money Museum downtown expected to blow minds

If you think about it, the concept of money in general is pretty weird: Basically, we assign a value to a random object and, as a society, agree upon its representative worth -- there's nothing intrinsically valuable about a $20 bill, for example, but neither is there anything intrinsically valuable about gold (it's just metal), or, for that matter, the number on your bank statement. The only thing that makes those things valuable is the cultural understanding that they are. And so, if you spend a little time contemplating the idea of the Money Museum's "$30 million wall," a mind-boggling paradox emerges.

The Money Museum is a part of a extensive renovation project that just wrapped up at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's Denver Branch (it's kind of a weird structure, but basically there are twelve Federal Reserve Banks around the country -- the one in Kansas City is the one that serves most of the mountain west -- and then those twelve have branches. Thus, the Fed in Denver is a branch of the one in KC), our fair city's offices of the nation's centralized banking system. Slated to open January 3 of 2011, the museum is the Fed's effort to help citizens "understand what the Fed is and how it affects them," says Stacee Montague, a public affairs person for the bank.

Featured at the museum will be a number of exhibits, from historic currency to a station where you can learn to identify counterfeit bills to a crayon-rubbing exhibit for the kids where they can use an engraving plate to make their own money -- which you will then be able to identify as counterfeit, because you will have learned about that. Damn counterfeiting children!

Probably the most notable feature of the museum, though, will be the aforementioned "$30 Million" wall, a wall embedded with, you know, $30 million worth of $100 bills. "We have $30 million, so why not?" says Montague.

Or do they?

Because according to Montague, the wall does not necessarily constitute a $30 million investment -- because the Fed is also the institution that prints the money. "It doesn't cost $30 million to make $30 million," Montague explains. "Really, the wall cost about $7 or $8,000 to make."

So in that case, is it really a $30 million wall? Or is it a $7 or $8,000 wall? It's a question of representative value: If the money in the wall does not represent any real value to the institution, and that institution is the one the assigns the value, then does it in fact have any value? Or does its potential for value make it valuable? Or does our cultural understanding that it is money, and therefore valuable, give it value? Or does it...

Our minds are pretty much blown.

In any case, where money will not factor into the museum is in the admission -- it's free to get in, and walk-ins are welcome at any time during business hours, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; a driver's license or ID is required for to get in for anyone over the age of 18. The Fed's Denver branch is located at 1020 16th Street on the 16th Street Mall, kitty-corner from the clocktower.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte