Tom Jeffreys writes for Glint on the re-opening of Paris’ former royal mint as a working museum
“While money does not talk it swears…” Bob Dylan’s famous aphorism from his 1964 song, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), has always been taken as an attack on the coarseness of cash. But there is another way to read these words: as an affirmation of a different kind of swearing – a commitment to a truth or to the future asserted before an authority. Money swears an oath. Money makes a promise that must be trusted: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand…,” read the notes issued by the Bank of England to this day.
Trust in such promises has been structurally integral to the functioning of currencies from their very beginnings. This much is clear throughout the long history of la Monnaie de Paris, the 1150 year-old French mint which opens to the public this week. Housed in a handsome neoclassical edifice on the left bank of the Seine, sensitively renovated by architect Philippe Prost, la Monnaie is now home to rich and fascinating displays that tell the diverse histories of money through a wealth of wonderful objects. In addition, there are idiosyncratic exhibition spaces for contemporary art (‘Women House’, a group exhibition of works by female artists opens on 20th October), as well as functioning ateliers, a restaurant, café and an appropriately high-end boutique.
La Monnaie was founded over 1150 years ago by King Charles II of France, known as Charles the Bald. In 864 AD, Charles issued L’Édit de Pîtres, or the edict of Pîtres, named after the region in Normandy where his legislative assembly took place. The edict covered a number of subjects, including the treatment of slaves, the fortification of bridges against the Normans, the deposition of Charles’ great rival Pepin II of Aquitaine, and the establishment of ten royal mints to be exclusively responsible for the production of currency for the whole kingdom. The only one that still survives is la Monnaie. The edict also included severe penalties for counterfeiters – trust in the currencies issued in Charles’ name was paramount. For Charles, the edict was about consolidating power. It clearly worked: ten years later he became King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor. Right from its origins, then, la Monnaie has always been about more than money.
Over its millennium-long history, La Monnaie has witnessed royal dynasties come and go. It has survived the French Revolution, Napoleon, and two world wars. During that time, la Monnaie has changed and developed significantly. The current building was designed by Jacques Denis Antoine and completed in 1775. But, in 1958, due to the huge scale of demand, industrial production was relocated outside Paris and in 1973 a new factory opened in Pessac, on the outskirts of Bordeaux. With Pessac taking charge of the bulk of output, the Paris site has shifted its focus to speciality pieces: military and civilian medals, limited edition commemorative pieces, and collaborations with contemporary artists and designers. The likes of Auguste Rodin, Salvador Dalí, and, more recently, Maurizio Cattelan and Jannis Kounellis have all collaborated with la Monnaie. So too designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Today, with the opening of much of the Paris building to the public, the difference between Pessac and Paris is clearer than ever. At the media view there was a lot of emphasis on the authenticity of la Monnaie and the continuing relevance of the Paris site as a place of active production. “This is the last factory in Paris,” said Aurélien Rousseau, president and director general of la Monnaie, “une entreprise vivante” (“a living business”) employing “vrais ouvriers” (“real workers”). But is it? And are they?
Yes, there is still production taking place in Paris. 150 artisans still work here. “We want to create vocations,” Rousseau told me. “It is important to re-evaluate handicrafts, and to show that these trades have a future.” But, like many a major French fashion brand foregrounding Paris-made couture when the majority of profits come from fragrances and factory-made bags, this is only a small part of the story. Today, 1.5 million coins are struck each year in Pessac for the central banks of around 40 countries around the world, including Colombia, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia. Industrialisation has come a long way: Pessac produces 800 coins per minute.
Further, in transforming an industrial site into a visitor attraction, la Monnaie partakes in the aestheticisation of the artisan that has become increasingly widespread in many Western economies. Around the ground floor, glass walls allow visitors to see employees at work in their ateliers. All wear smartly branded grey polo shirts. Yes, we can watch these “vrais ouvriers” operating complex-looking machinery, but this is a performance of production: not false exactly, but not purely true either. They were working at looking like they were working…
This is not so much a criticism as an observation, because la Monnaie is a fascinating place to visit – confirmation, as if any were needed, that when it comes to museums, Paris really is the best in the world. My favourite part is a small dark, unprepossessing gallery space. It’s deliberately cramped, we’re told, like a mine. Inside, the contents of each glass cabinet are arranged not according to chronology or geography or theme, but material. There are cabinets of iron, copper, nickel, and, of course, gold – “the king of metals”.
It’s a simple strategy but an eloquent one. It reminds us that, while money may signify like a language, it also consists of real, physical objects. Each material must be located, mined, transported, processed, and disseminated. So we see a lump of bubbling black hematite from Morocco alongside a 19th-century test punch, a 20 centimes piece from 1944 and a 2005 10 euro coin. In the gold case is a beautiful piece of Romanian sylvanite, a unique mineral that contains both gold and silver. It is dark grey and glittering with promise. By its side are a plethora of wonderful objects: a 13th-century double dinar, an Ottoman votive plaque, and a long, sleek, gold baton given to France by the King of Ethiopia in 1921.
Throughout the rest of the museum, there is much to see and to learn. The collection of la Monnaie numbers some 170,000 pieces. The curators have done an excellent job of editing this vast collection down to a public display of 2,000 objects. Highlights include a treasure trove from a Dutch ship sunk in 1724; the war chest of Louis XIV; and a large display of exquisitely hand-carved poinçons (punches), used to apply images to coins. The portraits of Henri III and IV are especially fine.
But this is not simply a place in which to marvel at beautiful old things. Because trade and exchange have long been integral to many human cultures, the curators have been able to touch upon a wealth of fascinating subjects. The section on counterfeiting is especially intriguing. Counterfeiting – “as old as the monetary principle itself,” we’re told – has always functioned as a spur to progress. Elsewhere are discussions of alternative currencies (shells, axe-heads, beads, cloth), power and propaganda, and money’s tendency to overrun national borders. A section on currency unions and the EU feels especially poignant.
“La Monnaie is not a place turned just towards the past,” said Aurélien Rousseau. As many western economies increasingly champion digitisation and the apparently frictionless promise of a cashless society, what does the future hold for la Monnaie? “It will always be necessary… to make conversions into physical money,” Rousseau tells me, “if only to guarantee confidence in the currency. The global fiduciary system is based on such trust – ‘fiduciary’ itself coming from the Latin word fides meaning faith or trust.” That trust is one of the major challenges facing new currency technologies today. After all, a promise means nothing if we don’t trust it. So long, then, as money continues to swear its oath, institutions like la Monnaie will be necessary.
La Monnaie de Paris opens on 30th September 2017
All photos courtesy of la Monnaie