Silent scribes record your debt. Nothing passes from hand to hand except the goods you receive, or the services you hire. All of the information necessary for the settlement of your debt is recorded at the same time as the transaction, along with notations about your identity, your past transactions, your social status. Multiple accounting devices exist. Ledgers circulate freely and are convertible, negotiable, can be signed over to others in exchange for other goods and services. There is no coin, no paper money, but rather an infinite chain of receipts in a variety of material formats.
This describes not the future, but the past: the ancient world before the rise of coinage, when money was a unit of account, not a tangible object, and clay tokens, pebbles, string and cuneiform tablets recorded debits and credits.
Instead of coins or paper circulating in exchange as tokens or representations of value, that first era of cashlessness captured in centralized records the transactional information of a multitude of participants and formed the basis for entire systems of exchange. How might we begin to understand the coming era, not as the end of cash so much as the return of cashlessness? How might this attention to the longue durée of transactions reframe our understanding of payments’ materialization? And how might a historically and ethnographically nuanced understanding of payments in practice focus our attention on the material forms of debt and transactional data past, present, and future?
TRANSACTIONS: A Payments Archive aims to open a conversation among curators, academics, payments industry professionals, numismatists, collectors and others about the great human transactional archive. In the process, we seek to expand that archive, to allow more things into it, to question its boundaries, and to reflect on the immaterial and material, ephemeral and durable, worthless and valuable qualities of those things.
Museums have long been repositories for the stuff of money: metal tokens, paper notes, shells, bars, plastic cards, a variety of tangible media of exchange, payment, and value storage. How might we reconstitute a material history of money, debt, payments, and transactional records across the institutional contexts and collections architectures that often leave these artifacts scattered and disconnected? And what of non-physical forms of money, from ancient accounting to contemporary cashlessness? What of the ephemera of transactions, the ledgers and receipts that were themselves frequently transformed into instruments and indexes of credit and tokens of value?
Shifts in the form of money and payment pose a challenge to curation, but also re-open the old question of the nature of money itself. There is also an urgency to this project: Artifacts from the early days of electronic transactions are in landfills, not museums. The preservation and curation of computers and data storage devices is still nascent. That of, say, the paper warning bulletins issued by the early card networks, or the records flowing through the Automated Clearing House—not to mention the diversity and abundance of records-keeping tools and technologies by everyday people around the world—is nonexistent.
TRANSACTIONS aims to provoke conversation by juxtaposing artifacts from across the history of payments and to raise awareness of the history and future of money, payment and transactional records and data.