The recent openings of the Winspear, the Perot Museum and the brand new Klyde Warren Park usher in a new era for downtown Dallas. Just down the street from the Perot, and caddy corner from KWP is a more inconspicuous update to this thriving area: The Economy in Action Exhibit at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, open since October.
Alexander Johnson, Media Coordinator at the Dallas Fed, explains that Economy in Action, “explores the roles and responsibilities of the Federal Reserve.” To clarify, the 12 District locations of the Federal Reserve Bank are part of the economic policy making structure, while the Bureau of Engraving in Fort Worth mints money. To drool over page after page of crisp new hundreds roll off the presses, you would need to be 37 miles away at the Fort Worth Mint.
Behind the visitor’s desk at the Dallas Fed is a nicely done collage introducing the 11th district composed of southern New Mexico, northern Louisiana and all of Texas. Throughout the lobby is a rather plain, but still interesting history of both US and Texas currency replete with monetary factoids. Did you that “HAWAII” was printed on all Hawaiian currency during WWII so that if Japan invaded Hawaii the currency could be voided?
The Money in Action exhibit starts in the 18th century with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson squaring off pro and con (respectively) about whether it is necessary to establish a central bank. Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury, ultimately wins the argument, with The First Bank of the United States being established in 1791. Fifty years later President Andrew Jackson succeeded in disbanding The Second Bank of the United States, eliminating central banking from the US economy.
After the central bank was quashed, banking shenanigans ensued and the United States lurched from one recession to another. Another surprising fact is that between the Civil War and WWI the US was in recession half the time? In 1913, the modern Federal Reserve was established and will celebrate its centennial on December 23. There is an interesting exhibit about how the Fed cities were chosen. There is an legendary story about the elaborately orchestrated “accidental” train meeting that led to Dallas being named as a location for one of the Fed’s district offices – sorry, New Orleans.
The exhibition glosses over 20th century economic history of the US with a mural and moves on to explain the Fed’s mission and how it functions. This is the most interesting part of the exhibition. However, this presentation of the modern Federal Reserve, seems to use the obscure economic history explored in the first part of the exhibit as a didactic foil to explain the Fed’s role in the modern economy. Don’t like the Fed? Here’s what the economy looked like without us.
Compared to the state of the art museums in the neighborhood, the Money in Action exhibit feels clunky. Unlike the currency display in the lobby (walk and read), Economy in Action exhibit is highly interactive. There are loads of short videos, sound clips, fun facts etc that require the push of a button or the lift of a panel. There isn’t much sizzle to these devices, but they do unlock loads of knowledge.
My biggest criticism is the theoretical nature of the exhibit. Of course, there is a disparity between the long term orientation of the Fed and the short term reaction of the markets. But the exhibit passes over modern issues like Quantitative Easing, federal debt, the global economy, technology and even the Great Depression. In short, Economy in Action feels like it is in a bubble.
As trivia, the entire Economy in Action experience is pretty unbeatable, from the big picture perspective, to the little tidbits presented in the exhibit, to the elaborate security system just to get in. It is almost impossible not to take America’s role as an economic superpower for granted, but the Economy in Action exhibit is a humbling reminder that America had to find its way economically, just it did (and does) with more top-of-mind issues.
Chances are pretty good that eventually we will all find ourselves at the Winspear, the Perot, and the new park. But seeing the Economy in Action exhibit will take some planning as it is only open from 9-3 Tuesday through Friday (it will not be affected by The Sequester) – admission is free. Put it on your to do list, and be ready to roll up your sleeves, push some buttons and to come away from the experience more knowledgeable than when you went in.