What is innovation in money today?

As the curator of the National Numismatic Collection (NNC), I collect objects that reflect innovation in money today in order to preserve them for the historians and museum visitors of tomorrow. But what is innovative? To many, innovation means the new digital technologies emerging from private enterprise, such as cryptocurrencies, mobile money, and Apple Pay, which continue to make cash seem more and more obsolete. Over the last year, however, I have collected a variety of coins and banknotes—and objects that enable their use—that reflect more subtle technological and social innovations. Three of these objects are now on display in the New Acquisitions case in The Value of Money.

The iBill Currency Reader

The first innovative object is the iBill Currency Reader—a new technology that helps to make U.S. banknotes more accessible. American banknotes are the same size, weight, and texture regardless of denomination. This uniformity makes it difficult for people who are blind or have low vision to determine the value of their banknotes. In 2015 the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) established the U.S. Currency Reader Program as part of the Meaningful Access Program. The BEP distributes iBills for free to people who are blind or have low vision.

A small, black, rectangular plastic device that looks like it could rest in the palm of a hand. In light grey text, it says "iBill" and "RBIT" on the top.

The iBill is a small, handheld device that reads all U.S. banknotes. The reader communicates the value of the banknote through a voice, pattern of tones, or pattern of vibrations. The vibrations setting makes the iBill useful to people who are both deaf and blind.

The iBill joins other objects in the NNC that reflect the need to make money accessible to all, including a Braille check signed by Helen Keller that was donated to the Smithsonian in 1978.

A gold piece of paper with raised dots on it and the signature of Helen Keller printed on the bottom right.
 

Local Banknotes

Local banknotes are currencies that are issued by private businesses and individuals—as opposed to a central bank—with the aim of encouraging people to buy local products. These alternatives to national currencies essentially operate like local sales vouchers in a handful of communities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe; for example BerkShares are circulating in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts and the Ithaca Dollar used in Ithaca, New York. The three notes on display in The Value of Money are called Brixton Pounds and have been used in small businesses in London's Brixton district since 2009. The designs reflect local culture and history—rather than national political history—and feature famous former residents such as pop star David Bowie and Black Cultural Archives founder Len Garrison, as well as designs by artist Jeremy Deller..

A rectangular piece of paper currency. It has a white background but contains hot pink and shades of green. There are "1"s on several places on the check and a man's face on the righthand side; text identifies him as Len Garrison

A rectangular piece of paper currency from the UK. There is a stylized illustrated woman with black hair, a flower and a pearl necklace. She is sticking her tongue out with her eyes closed. There is a man's head and hand holding a spray paint can. There is also a black circle with a man on a skateboard and a bicycle. Elsewhere, there are designs in olive, hot pink, and purple. It is worth 1.

A rectangular piece of currency. It is a mix of coral, green, and yellow colors with an illustration overlaid of a pleasant looking face, created using lattice-esque designs. There are various smaller markings and the number 5.

A rectangular piece of paper currency. It has a black border and is kelly green with a quote from Karl Marx on it in white lettering. There is a "5" and several logos in the lefthand corner.

A rectangular piece of currency with David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase on the right half and several "10"s and other markings on the rest of the bill.

A rectangular piece of currency with a white background and a stream of birds fling across from one corner to the other, morphing into a peace sign that becomes the number 0 in "10", with other markings and decorations across it.

Curved Coins

This coin, designed to honor the 75th anniversary of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, is the first curved coin produced by the U.S. Mint. The concavity, or cup-like shape, of the coin enhances the baseball glove design of the coin's obverse.

A round silver coin that has a baseball design and says "United States of America E Pluribus Unum / One dollar" on it. Its sides are ridged.

The reverse side of a silver coin. It has a baseball glove on it and the inscription "Liberty In God we trust 2014

Although this coin represents a new production technology in use in the U.S Mint, it is not the first cup-shaped coin in world history. The NNC holds some of the earliest cup-shaped coins, also known asscyphates, which were minted in the Byzantine Empire. These coins were intentionally given a cup-like shape through a minting process involving multiple strikes. There are numerous theories about the reason for this alternative shape. Some believe that it was used to indicate that the coin was an alloy (rather than pure metal) or to strengthen thin coinage to avoid breakage.

An old, golden coin with a design on it. There appears to be a figure in the center with a crown or halo. Letters or symbols surround it. The edges of the coin appear to be thinner, as if beaten.

The reverse side of an old, golden coin. There appears to be a crowned, standing figure holding a scepter. There are letters in the spaces surrounding it. The edges are flattened and look to be beaten out to be thinner.

A look at an old, golden coin from the side. The viewer is slightly underneath it and can see it is bowl-shaped, with its sides thinning out and a design carved in the middle.

Displayed together in The Value of Money, these varied objects provide a vibrant and alternative picture of contemporary innovation—one that is reflective of the ongoing utility of coins and banknotes in both exchange and commemoration.

Ellen Feingold is the curator of the National Numismatic Collection.