LSE research on the history of currencies in West Africa has been the catalyst for creating new digital resources that educate and enhance public understanding.
What was the context?
Currencies and their use provide a window into wider histories of trade, politics, and cultural interaction.
In West Africa, they reflect the complex legacies of colonial rule and decolonisation. It was once popular to refer to a “currency revolution”, in which colonial coins and notes displaced indigenous currencies with the advent of imperial rule – and were later replaced by national currencies after independence. However, this analysis lacks nuance in examining the interaction of economic, political, and monetary change in the region over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Understanding the history of currency objects themselves – why they were created, where they circulated, and what they communicated to their users – is central to developing a deeper knowledge of how monetary systems developed and reflected social changes. However, access to these objects has been a challenge. Much of what is held in museums has either not been digitised or is not easily discoverable in large, museum-wide collection databases. Catalogue entries for these objects often reflect dated understandings of how they were used.
What did we do?
Dr Leigh Gardner’s research has studied how specific coins, notes, and other objects were used as currency by different communities. In Europe, the 19th century saw the consolidation of multiple currency systems into the system of national currencies we know today. Far from being the norm, however, national currencies were historically exceptional. In Africa, different currencies were used for different types of transactions, often contrary to the intentions of colonial and post-independence governments. In this way, trade, politics, and culture intersected to form complicated monetary geographies that were shaped as much by Africans as by European colonisers.
Case studies provide vivid illustrations of these patterns. One example is the issue of the Liberian dollar after Liberia’s declaration of independence in 1847. Liberia remained one of the only parts of sub-Saharan Africa to maintain formal political sovereignty through the colonial period, which the issue of currency was intended to emphasise. First President of Liberia, Joseph Roberts, claimed the new coins would provide the “stamp of nationality” for the Liberian state. However, there were immediate practical challenges because of limited resources, which resulted in the de facto adoption of British colonial currency. This provided economic stability but amounted to a concession of Liberian sovereignty. During the Second World War, US dollars replaced British currency, and to this day Liberia retains a dual-currency system.
In the case of the Gambia, Gardner’s research shows how attempts to compromise between political and commercial imperatives often had unanticipated consequences. In the early 20th century, the Gambia was a tiny British colony surrounded by French Senegal. The British colonial government acknowledged that the local economy depended on trade with Senegal and set a fixed exchange rate between British sterling and the French franc. This created opportunities for substantial profits from arbitrage when the international rate of exchange began to fluctuate during the First World War. Enterprising traders profited handsomely by crossing the long land border, exchanging French five-franc coins for sterling coins at the official rate, then crossing the border again to buy francs at the depreciated international rate.
This research illustrates how understanding the use of money in Africa helps to answer wider questions about the extent of state capacity and colonial control. Crucial to this work is the fact that the objects themselves had meaning, both for those who issued them and those who used them.
In a collaboration between LSE and the Smithsonian Institution, this research has been used to create innovative new digital collections and a physical display. The Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection (NNC) holds one of the most diverse collections of African coins, notes and alternative currency objects in the world. The collaboration began when Gardner approached Dr Ellen Feingold, Curator of the NNC at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), to request photographs of a selection of coins and notes for a forthcoming book. This narrow request led to broader discussions about how currency objects could tell wider stories about political and economic change in West Africa, and could be used for teaching, research, and public history, drawing on existing expertise within the NNC about how to use these objects for public engagement. As the Smithsonian’s digitisation programme was not likely to prioritise this historically important but small collection, LSE provided funding from its Knowledge Exchange and Impact (KEI) funds.
The outcome is a new open-access digital collection of 880 coins, banknotes, and other objects used as currency from West Africa, including a range of alternative currencies like cowrie shells, manillas, and iron bars known as Kissi pennies. Smithsonian staff created high-quality images of the objects. At the same time, research by Gardner, Feingold and other authors was used to update object descriptions in catalogue resources used by thousands of people, for example by removing dated or offensive language referring to alternative currencies as “primitive” or “curious", and providing texts that reflect more recent scholarly understandings. In this way, the project has contributed to a decolonisation of this part of the Smithsonian’s collections.
It is one thing to place an image of an object online, and another to get people to use them in teaching. To facilitate its educational impact, several sub-collections were curated for the Smithsonian’s widely used Learning Lab platform. Learning Lab is dedicated specifically for use in education and has some 600,000 users. Working with Smithsonian staff, Gardner and Feingold selected relevant objects for each sub-collection and wrote the supporting material, with themes including money and exchange in West Africa, and decolonisation and the transition to independence. With the help of the Museum’s education team, three of these themes have also been tailored to modules in the world history curriculum taught to 10th-graders (15- and 16-year-olds) in the Loudoun County, Virginia school system. This collaboration highlights the diverse pedagogical potential of such digital resources.
This project has provided a new template for collaboration between museums and universities: “research-led digitisation”. Museum digitisation projects generally aim to place images online so that they become the subject of research, maximising access by digitising as many items as possible with minimal description. In research-led digitisation, scholars and curators can digitise smaller but historically significant collections, using current research to update object descriptions and helping to facilitate the use of digital images in teaching.
This project has now been extended to South Africa. Gardner and Feingold were approached by Johan Fourie at Stellenbosch University, who wanted to collaborate to digitise the Smithsonian’s South African currency collection as part of centennial commemorations of the South African Reserve Bank. Again supported by LSE, 714 coins, notes, and other currency objects are being digitised. These have been used to create digital sub-collections on the Learning Lab, creating teaching resources that provide new perspectives on South African history from the establishment of colonial regimes to the rise and fall of apartheid.
By providing digital access to the objects themselves, and drawing on research to curate them thematically, this collaboration between the Smithsonian and LSE has helped to bring the histories of West Africa and South Africa to a wider audience of students and the general public.