Museum Exhibit Tracks Global Financial Crisis

The Museum of American Finance has a new exhibit called "Tracking the Credit Crisis." It is basically a timeline displaying the major events of the global economic crisis, from the collapse of Lehman Brothers to the decision to save AIG.

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Okay, we just heard about how today's recession is being compared to the Great Depression. One place to learn more about the country's economic history is the Museum of American Finance, which is in lower Manhattan. It's just steps away from the New York Stock Exchange, where so much of America's money has disappeared. It's one of the lesser known museums in New York City, but unlike a lot of its rivals, this museum has seen its attendance soar lately.

The credit crisis is bringing a lot of people through the doors, and museum employees are taking steps to explain how the meltdown occurred. NPR's Jim Zarroli has more.

JIM ZARROLI: Wall Street is a place that thinks about the present and the future, but not very much about the past, except perhaps here at the Museum of American Finance. With its marble walls and high ceilings, the museum looks a lot like a Depression-era bank, and, in fact, that's what this building used to be. The museum was founded by Wall Street trader John Herzog after the 1987 stock market crash.

Ms. LEENA AKHTAR (Director of Exhibits and Archives, Museum of American Finance): The museum was started with the mission of both educating people about finance in general, and also preserving and passing on the lessons of history.

ZARROLI: Leena Akhtar is the director of exhibits and archives. The museum's collection features a lot of historic documents, like a stock share from Buffalo Bill's Wild West exhibition and a bill of exchange for the Louisiana Purchase. But Akhtar says a lot of people who come in the museum these days are interested in something much more recent - the credit crisis.

Ms. AKHTAR: I think the biggest thing that people tend to be curious about is, how did this happen? Why did this happen? And we have people here who have only a notion or idea of, like, what a subprime loan is. Right? A loan made people to bad credit. And as soon as you draw that connection for them, they're like, oh. Oh, well, no wonder.

ZARROLI: Akhtar used to work in finance but gave it up because she loved history more. She says as a matter of history, it's probably too soon to understand the credit crisis, but with so much interest in the subject, the museum is trying to help its visitors make sense of it.

Mr. BILL WHITLOCK (Museum Guide): Please come on in and take a look. If there are other things you think we should add, let us know.

ZARROLI: Today, the museum's Bill Whitlock is leading some Salisbury University finance students past a new timeline of the credit crisis. It begins with the resignation of UBS's chairman in 2007 and passes through the collapse of Bear Stearns, then the awful events of last September - the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The events on the timeline are color coded. Anything tied to the housing downturn, for instance, is in brown. Government interventions are in red, and there's a lot of red on the right side of the timeline. The students listen respectfully, then Adam Messick(ph) comes over to talk about the credit crisis.

Mr. ADAM MESSICK (Finance Student, Salisbury University): You see a lot of these banks, they get federal money and then they start, you know, paying bonuses and all that type of stuff. And, you know, that's not right, especially if they're taking government money. Because it's their money, it's our money, the taxpayers, and we don't want it to be spent in an irresponsible way.

ZARROLI: A lot of people come to the museum with very strong opinions about the crisis. But coming here can give visitors a sense of perspective. There are lots of exhibits about previous financial crises stretching back through American history.

Aniline Dinkleman(ph), who leads tours at the museum, says people tend to feel better when they realize that the current crisis is nothing new.

Ms. ANNALEEN DINKLEMAN (Museum Guide): They get hope, because they realize this is just a passing event. Often I will ask people about, like, previous financial crisis. Many times when I ask does anyone still remember the Enron crisis? Remember that a couple of years ago? And I realize people don't remember. People's memory is just short on, like, bad events.

ZARROLI: But unlike previous financial crises, this one is still taking place. So the museum has left some space on the wall to extend the timeline when it needs to.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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