Putting the economy on show.
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Exhibiting economic knowledge: esthetic spaces and dismal science
Economics is generally considered an abstract field. This feeling is probably due to the high degree of mathematization and technicality of current economic science, but also to the dematerialization of currencies and the financialization of economies, which seem to keep economic transactions at bay from the concrete reality of production and exchange. For all these reasons, the idea of exhibiting the economy is hardly self-evident. How can the museum, the quintessential place to experience the visual, sensitive and aesthetic, be reconciled with such a dreary, abstract subject, the “dismal science” described by Thomas Carlyle when he talked about economics?
Materializing economic knowledge
Museums of economics – however incongruous, even paradoxical, they might seem – do exist. Some have institutional legitimacy, like the Cité de l’économie, inaugurated in 2019 by the Banque de France in one of its former Parisian branches, the Hôtel Gaillard, built between 1878 and 1882 by the architect Jules Février. In a grandiose setting, objects, animated images, and interactive games are used to convey the main concepts of economic science and the major facts of economic history and reform.
In other parts of the world, at the same moment, somewhat less official museums of economics were opening. The Museum of Capitalism was founded in 2017 by artists and curators Timothy Furstnau and Andrea Steves; it has been hosted, year after year, in different spaces in California, Boston, New York or Berlin. In 2019, the Museum of Neoliberalism, founded by Darren Cullen and Gavin Grindon, opened its permanent installation in London. Although very different, these “museums” display the same ambition: to bring together the works of contemporary artists, activists and heterodox economists, in order to propose a rematerialization of economic knowledge, allowing its appropriation, and its eventual subversion, by the greatest number of people. To accomplish this, they put forward more inspiring graphic visualizations of the economy; they exhibit artifacts that allow a more direct approach of economic concepts; they think up interactive devices that allow the spectator to experience a model, a data or a quantity.
In Blake Fall-Conroy’s Minimum Wage Machine, for example, exhibited at the Museum of Capitalism, visitors are invited to turn a crank: small coins enclosed in the jar fall out as you do so. The mechanism is set up in such a way that turning the crank continuously for one hour allows the visitor to earn the minimum hourly wage of the country where the work is installed: 7 dollars and 25 cents for the United States. The materialization of knowledge makes it possible to experience what an abstract quantity – in this case, the minimum hourly wage – represents. It also, strikingly, sheds a light on a social phenomenon David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”: jobs that are meaningless for those who do them, and whose social utility is difficult to identify, apart from providing an income to those who do them.
While the political objectives and ideological underpinnings of the Museum of Capitalism and the Cité de l’économie differ – as do their financing and running – the similarities are nevertheless striking between the visual, plastic and museographic means used. Indeed, in all cases the challenge is to make visible what is largely invisible, to materialize what is largely immaterial, to make interesting, seductive, even beautiful, what is, as was said, dismal. Through various forms and contexts, this ambition to materialize economic knowledge in the exhibition space crosses through history.
The machines of the Cité de l’économie or the Museum of Capitalism find their precedents in exhibitions such as “The Money Center”, presented at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry in 1979-1980. Supplied with computers, a pinball machine, video games and interactive spaces, the exhibition used the latest technologies available to teach the function and the (correct) use of money and banking. Decades earlier, machines to be manipulated, relief maps and dioramas already made up the collections of the economic and social museums that flourished in Europe and North and South America during the first third of the 20th century – such as the Swiss Social Museum, founded in 1917, recently rediscovered by historian Claire-Lise Deblüe, or the Argentinian Social Museum, founded in 1912 on the model of the 1895 Paris Social Museum. The most famous is undoubtedly the Economic and Social Museum of Vienna, created in 1925 by philosopher and economist Otto Neurath. It housed the collaboration between Neurath and graphic designer Gerd Arntz, which resulted in the creation of isotypes, a system for visualizing statistical data that had a decisive influence on the field of graphic communication.
The origins: economic exhibitions at the World Fairs of the 19th century
If we are to consider the history of these rather strange attempts to put economics on display, we must go back even further in time. Indeed, these economic and social museums are the direct heirs of the economic exhibitions first organized within the World Fairs of the 19th century. As an exhibition of the products and equipment of the industrial and artisanal production of nations, World Fairs, as a whole, often appeared to their visitors as a “lesson in practical philosophy and applied political economy”, to use the words of the economist Louis Wolowski in his 1873 report. 1L. Wolowski, Rapport verbal sur l’exposition universelle de Vienne présenté à l’Académie des sciences morales et politiques, Paris, Librairie de Guillaumin et Cie, 1873, p. 13. However, within World Fairs, organizers strove to create a space where the economy could be seen as it was, in a reflective effort. The most successful models were provided by the Parisian exhibitions of 1855, 1867, 1889, and 1900 which were emulated in many other exhibitions throughout the world, bet they universal, national or thematic.
As early as 1867, these special exhibitions were seen as able to “summarize the economic laws of the Exhibition”.2Exposition Universelle de 1867. L’enquête du Dixième Groupe. Catalogue analytique des documents, mémoires et rapports Exposés hors classe dans le dixième groupe et relatifs aux institutions publiques et privées créées par l’Etat, les départements, les communes et les particuliers pour améliorer la condition physique et morale de la population, Paris, E. Dentu, 1867, p. 7-8. Of course, these “economic laws” were those of booming capitalism – division of labor, free trade, technological increase in productivity, capital accumulation, and gain scale – tinged with paternalism and philanthropy. The aim was to demonstrate to visitors, and especially to workers, that the capitalist system was unquestionably the best (and only) possible economic system, so as to divert them from socialist or revolutionary temptations. The aim of the social economy group, per the Official Bulletin in 1889, “must be to attract as many workers as possible to its Special Exhibition, so that they may better appreciate the work and effort of their true friends”. 3Bulletin official de l’exposition universelle de 1889, Paris, Champs de Mars, n°65, Saturday 11 february 1888, p. 4. Faced with competition from ever more spectacular attractions hosted by the Universal Exhibitions, the organizers were well aware of the challenge. Emile Cheysson, the economist in charge of the 1889 exhibition, summarized it very clearly:
“If one had only had to talk to economists, men of leisure and study, the installation of the Social Economy exhibition would have been easy and consisted simply of placing documents on tables […]. But the problem became otherwise thornier from the moment we wanted to target the general public and interest the harried visitor, who does not stop to leaf through brochures or tables of figures. This passer-by, it was necessary to seize him by an external spectacle, to force his attention, to make him look and think”4E. Cheysson, ‘Rapport de la section XIV. Institutions patronales’, in A. Picard, Exposition universelle international de 1889 à Paris. Rapports du jury international, Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1890-1893, vol. 2, p. 352.
Thus, from exhibition to exhibition, from the modest 1855 Home Economics Gallery to the gigantic Social Economy Palace of 1900, an innovative experimental museography unfolded, composed of objects, miniature working reconstructions of factories, workers’ houses, sometimes inhabited, built on the exhibition grounds, hand-colored maps and charts, busts, watercolors, banners, photographs.
Despite the ambitious goals of the organizers and the inventiveness of their initiatives, it is difficult to measure the historical effectiveness of this materialization of economic knowledge. As always, the reception of an exhibition sometimes subverts the purpose it was intended for. Socialist Jules Guesde hinted at this in 1898, when he saw in the economic exhibitions a “mirror larger than life, in which our bourgeoisie is about to gaze at itself”. Calling on workers to see in it the reflection of the flaws of capitalism rather than its supposed virtues, he concluded:
“Instead of emerging rehabilitated and strengthened from the upcoming exhibition, the capitalist regime will emerge more doomed and more weakened than ever. Truthfully, this exposure – in the judicial and disgraceful sense of the word – will only provide the proletariat, humiliated and robbed, with new reasons and new forces to pursue its revolutionary path”5J. Guesde, “Exposition subversive”, La Lanterne, 25 august 1898, p. 1. This text was flagged in E. Martayan, “Emile Cheysson et les Expositions universelles de Paris”, Revue Milieux, revue de l’Ecomusée de la Communauté Le Creusot/Montceau-Les-Mines, n°28, p. 24.
L. Wolowski, Rapport verbal sur l’exposition universelle de Vienne présenté à l’Académie des sciences morales et politiques, Paris, Librairie de Guillaumin et Cie, 1873, p. 13.
 Exposition Universelle de 1867. L’enquête du Dixième Groupe. Catalogue analytique des documents, mémoires et rapports Exposés hors classe dans le dixième groupe et relatifs aux institutions publiques et privées créées par l’Etat, les départements, les communes et les particuliers pour améliorer la condition physique et morale de la population, Paris, E. Dentu, 1867, p. 7-8.
 Bulletin official de l’exposition universelle de 1889, Paris, Champs de Mars, n°65, Saturday 11 february 1888, p. 4.
 E. Cheysson, ‘Rapport de la section XIV. Institutions patronales’, in A. Picard, Exposition universelle international de 1889 à Paris. Rapports du jury international, Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1890-1893, vol. 2, p. 352.
 J. Guesde, “Exposition subversive”, La Lanterne, 25 august 1898, p. 1. This text was flagged in E. Martayan, “Emile Cheysson et les Expositions universelles de Paris”, Revue Milieux, revue de l’Ecomusée de la Communauté Le Creusot/Montceau-Les-Mines, n°28, p. 24.
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Sophie Cras is a lecturer in contemporary art history at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Her research is at the nexus of art and economy, in a historical perspective. She holds a specific interest in the economy of art and its market, focusing on the economic knowledge and practice of artists themselves. She also studies how economical science mobilizes images, as well as the creative and critical ways artists react to their current economic system.