UNLIKE its primary job of controlling inflation, which is still galloping above 31 per cent from an already high base, there is very little to nit-pick in the State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP) execution of a years-long museum project.
It’s not just the majestic Greco-Roman structure the British built in red sandstone 100 years ago to house the Imperial Bank of India that exudes a sense of grandeur. The wow factor owes much to the neat design and rich collection of the museum’s seven galleries that showcase a vast number of coins, stamps, notes, historical documents, paintings and articles of interest.
The evolution of money, banking, central banking and the SBP itself is explained in bite-sized chunks of information, that should appeal equally to neophytes and buffs of economic and financial history.
The stand-out item on display, for me, is the “inflation machine”. Mounted on a wooden rack, it challenges the viewer with a tantalising prospect: “Can you control inflation?”
The text right below the display notes, without a hint of irony, that it’s the SBP’s job to maintain the value of your money by controlling the rate of inflation.
A silver ball resides inside a thermometer-like glass rod, resting horizontally on a platform. There is a lever to one side, which the visitor is supposed to move up or down, as a proxy for the benchmark interest rate.
The silver ball reacts to the lever’s movements and rolls left or right inside the glass rod, that bears inflation markings. Increasing the interest rate lowers inflation, but hurts economic growth. Bringing the interest rate down has the opposite reaction. The challenge is to carefully adjust the lever (read: interest rate) to bring the silver ball (i.e. inflation) to a standstill at the ideal 2pc mark.
I did it in less than a minute, while wondering if the SBP governor ever sneaked into the museum on a lazy afternoon just to experience the sheer joy of achieving the inflation target for once, albeit in a make-believe setting.
Inflation is probably the most oft-recurring theme in the section about the history of money. One pound of gold in 307 AD was worth 100,000 denarii, an ancient Roman silver coin. The conversion rate rose to 300,000 denarii by 324 AD, which translates to a rather benign average annual inflation of 6.7pc in the intervening 17 years. Seeing this, I can’t help but wonder how museums of the future will showcase the 35pc food inflation being experienced in present-day rural Pakistan.
The first case of “hyperinflation” shown on the timeline emblazoned on a wall dates back to China, circa 1166 AD. The main reason for hyperinflation, which usually means monthly inflation rate of more than 50pc, was an all too familiar one: excessive note printing, something the SBP is accused of doing every few years.
Nationalisation of the entire banking industry in 1974 was a uniquely tumultuous event that changed the basic fabric of the wider economy in more ways than one. Yet this sea change gets just a passing reference through a small plaque. Notable episodes from Pakistan’s banking history, like the Mehrangate scandal, the freezing of foreign currency accounts in 1999 and the thousand-rupee sale of KASB Bank don’t even get honourable mentions.
SBP Deputy Director of Museum Tanveer Afzal told Dawn the museum houses only a handful of replicas as 99pc of coins, stamps and notes — including those from ancient history or remote parts of the world — are original.
The SBP purchased these artefacts in large part, he said, adding that even the flowcharts depicting the global history of money and banking were researched and drawn by in-house experts. Mr Afzal took up the reins of the museum after prominent archaeologist Asma Ibrahim recently retired as founding director.
The undisputable highlight of the museum is the Sadequain Gallery, with its three mammoth murals and five metal collages. Looking at the original Treasuries of Time — a massive mural of 8ft by 61ft depicting 46 towering figures from world history from the fields of philosophy, mathematics, medicine, literature etc — makes for an unreal experience. Sadequain made this piece in 1961 at the age of 31, when the vectors of his physical strength and his mastery of the art were probably at their zenith.
Located within the SBP headquarters near Merewether Tower, the museum is open to the public free of charge, Monday through Saturday between 9:30am and 5pm. All galleries are wheelchair accessible and entry is through the pedestrian gate on main I.I. Chundrigar Road.
I recommend taking a red bus (routes 1, 4 and 9) to the museum, because finding parking in the vicinity might prove more difficult than finding water on Mars.
Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2023