Museu do Dinheiro: The Smiling Face of Portugal’s Central Bank

Atlas gets a tour of the bank vaults, gets to touch a bar of gold, and learns about one of the biggest forgery schemes in the history of money.

Banks and exhibitions have gone hand in hand since the birth of banks — they have all the money, after all — but Lisbon’s Museu do Dinheiro takes it up a notch, with exhibits not just about coins and bank notes but about fraud and, because this is Lisbon, archeology.

I teamed up with Simon Scharf on his LX Museum Quest to visit the Museu do Dinheiro, based in what was once the secret Fort Knox of Portugal, and before that the Church of Sao Julião. The building was first used by the Bank of Portugal in 1933 when they covertly installed several large vaults to house the country’s gold reserves. Fifty years passed before Sao Julião gave up its secrets, and in 1995 the gold was gone and the church once again opened to the public, despite its walls and floors still carrying the scars from years of banking.

Another 20 years passed before the museum as we know it came into existence, and with it, the return of gold. Well, some gold, anyway. The ticket room, which you enter through one of the bank’s remaining vault doors, holds a solid gold bar in a small safe of its own, and it is this bar, scratched with keys and marked by fingers, that sets the tone for the rest of the museum. Because, unlike other museums, touching is encouraged, and this interactive element is carried through one room after another, gamifying the story of currency, coinage, and its impact on Portugal.

It is at this gold bar (which is watched by a camera, just so you know) that we began our tour with Daniela — possibly the most passionate guide in Lisbon.

On exiting the ticket room, you hit a humanoid exhibit-case with a talking screen for a head. If you’re thinking that this sounds bizarre, you’d be right. And it is kind of representative of what to expect: the design of the museum was way ahead of its time. The plan was made in 2011 and relied on technology that didn’t even exist yet, which has resulted in a mix of old-looking new gadgets (think Sinclair C5).

A prime example is the use of augmented reality to examine different coins. While very cool, and definitely engaging, this early-adopted tech is full of bugs — one of the screens crashed when we took a look (thanks, Windows XP). But with risk comes reward, and the Money Museum is considered at the forefront of museography, with curators from around the globe visiting for inspiration, according to museum director Sara Brighenti.

The exhibits are split across multiple levels, and the basement is a strange tangent from the rest of your visit since it contains not a collection of coins but a section of King Dinis’ Wall — a 700-year-old pirate-proof wall that used to encircle Lisbon. In fact, this is the only known section of the wall that you can visit in the whole city, with much of it succumbing to the hammers and chisels of builders past (and present).

The upper floors are actual “money” exhibits — examples of coins (and other, weirder tokens), their history, and how they were, and are, made. It is here that we were able to peruse the various banknotes of Portugal — from the very earliest examples, printed in Scandinavia, all the way to the 500 escudo note that was at the center of one of Portugal’s most notorious forgeries — Alves dos Reis’ Portuguese Bank Note Affair.

Daniela pointed to the various notes in front of me and Simon, attempting to have us differentiate Reis’ 500 escudo note from the genuine one (we couldn’t). She eventually explained that the “fakes” were, in fact, a slightly different color, something we would have missed if not for our very knowledgable guide.

Beyond these notes, the museum has many other exhibits, with articles ranging from the earliest coins of the Roman empire and Chinese dynasties, all the way up to the latest Euro notes. For the print fanatics, there are also examples of presses and geometric-engraving machine. Alas, these were a couple of the very few exhibits that you aren’t able to play with.

Along with the history of money, and its place within Portuguese society, Daniela walked Simon and me through the history of the Bank of Portugal itself — the museum’s owner and deep-pocketed patron. She talked us through its formation in the mid-1800s to its place within the public consciousness today and how it has tried to weather the storm of the 2008 crisis. The Bank of Portugal has suffered many scandals throughout its history, and it’s with this in mind that they opened Museu do Dinheiro, which acts as the smiling face of the central bank, reassuring foreign tourists and, more importantly, the Portuguese citizens who make up more than 80% of their visitors.

The museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday, from 10.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m, and is completely free to enter. Despite coin collecting having a bad reputation of bespeckled old men, this museum is one of the hidden gems of Lisbon. Its interactive exhibits and world-class curation make it well worth a visit. The director, Sara Brighenti, said that from its very inception the museum aimed to make it exciting and, more importantly, accessible to non-experts — and in this, they did a fantastic job.

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