Saturday, January 4, 2014

10 Years Wertpapierwelt

The town of Olten is only an hour's drive away from Zürich, Bern and Basel. Last summer it's Wertpapierwelt museum celebrated its tenth anniversary and surprised us with a threefold exhibition:
  • The first section, Shares & Co - How financial instruments work, displays the multifaceted nature of financial instruments and their workings.
  • The Story of capitalism – How shares changed the world is devoted to the origin and spread of the joint stock company throughout the last 400 years.
  • The special exhibition, The networked business world – Globalization and shares, provides an impression of just how globally interconnected the economy is with the most varied areas of our lives.

Dagmar Schönig is the curator at the Wertpapierwelt museum since the very beginning. Here is an interview with her.

Images by courtesy of Wertpapierwelt

Sociedad Mineralogica de la Ciudad de Arequipa engraved by Joseph Vazquez
Detail from the certificate, see below, of the 
Sociedad Mineralogica de la Ciudad de Arequipa company
Engraved by Joseph Vazquez
Vazquez, an engraver from the 18th and 19th century,
was also known for his map engravings as you can see

Dagmar, you are the curator of the Wertpapierwelt museum. This sounds like a dream job to some of us. 
I can imagine that the job as a curator in a museum of historical bonds and shares sounds like a dream job for any collector. However, you would run pretty quickly into a conflict of interests. That’s why the “code of ethics” of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) – which our museum is a member of – does not allow that employees of a museum are private collectors or professional dealers of objects that form the museum collection they have to work with.
Can you tell us something more about your work as a museum curator ?
As the museum Wertpapierwelt is not “heavily staffed”, my job description covers a lot of different tasks:
1. I am in charge of  all aspects regarding the collection, i.e. inventory and all conservatory aspects (in case of old paper in exhibitions, mainly the light is a problem), I research historical backgrounds, make acquisitions according to the collection policy (within a given budget), and everything in between…
2. I plan exhibitions, develop the according concept, write all the texts, decide on the scenography with external exhibition builders, supervise the buildup and the production of the accompanying publications, control the costs, etc.
3. I have to run the day to day business of the museum, including providing guided tours for visitors, running marketing activities, making surveys and statistics, reporting to public authorities and  the board of the museum, etc. You see, it doesn’t get boring! 

share certificate of the Sociedad Mineralogica de la Ciudad de Arequipa
Sociedad Mineralogica de la Ciudad de Arequipa
Share certificate, Peru 1792
part of the The Story of Capitalism exhibition section

double-click image to enlarge

Does your earlier education somehow help you in being a scripophily curator ? 
In my “previous life” I have worked for several international banks. This professional background in the banking industry certainly helps me when it comes to explain the complexity of the finance business to the broad public. You have to understand that Wertpapierwelt does not just show historical securities and says “Look! What a nice old share”, but puts them into a wider context. We have a lot of school classes and visitors who have only a very vague idea about the differences between a share and bond for example. 
Originally I studied languages and economics – but that is a very long time ago. When I got the chance to take over the project of transforming an extensive collection of historical bonds and shares into a museum, I was thrilled! History, especially economic (and technical) history, had always interested me. And the beauty of most of the papers certainly helped my inspiration. Of course, I had to learn a lot in terms of “museum work” ! But we wanted from the beginning that Wertpapierwelt was run in a professional manner, therefore I started my further education and acquired my knowledge through professional training in classes provided by the Swiss Association of Museums and others. Now, I am additionally studying for a master degree in “Applied History” at the University of Zurich.
In your opinion, what key values are essential to a curator ?
As a curator of a museum you obviously have to have a profound knowledge of your objects”! You need to be curious about every aspect of their background and be a persistent researcher. Wikipedia is not enough!
In case of acquisitions, you must also have a good judgment of what fits your collection strategy and – often more difficult – what does not. It can be hard to let a certain piece go if you personally like it, but it just doesn’t fit.
You also have to really care for your objects and do everything for their good preservation, even if it means that you cannot show them as often or in a certain way, as you actually would like to do. Especially paper is very sensitive.
For setting up exhibitions you need a certain amount of creativity, the ability to tell an interesting story (which also means that you have fun researching it first and then putting your results into easily readable writing!), and – of course – you need project management skills (which means: stay cool!). 
Chen Feng Spinning and Weaving Company share certificate
Chen Feng Spinning and Weaving Company
pre-communist era

part of the "special" exhibition
double-click image to enlarge

In the past, the museum featured a yearly exhibition. Today, there is a also a permanent two-part exhibition. How did the museum come to the decision of setting up a permanent exhibition ?
First of all, I think I have to clarify that “permanent exhibition” does not mean that it will stay like that forever, but for maybe three years instead of just one. The “special exhibition” will change more frequently (next time probably by the end of 2014 or early 2015).
Over the past ten years we have experienced that our visitors often have a deficit in knowledge about financial instruments; and that is actually why they come to the museum : to learn something about bonds and shares and the stock exchanges! Although our previous exhibitions, in which we presented one topic in great breadth and depth, were highly appreciated, we were often confronted with the same type of basic questions: What is the difference between a bond and a share, and why do companies issue them? How does the stock exchange work? Why are stocks, bonds, and the capital markets so important for the economy? For someone who is familiar with the financial industry these questions might sound bland, but it is quite a challenge to put the answers into easily understandable laymen’s terms, which we tried to do in the two parts of our exhibition that will stay for a longer period. By extending the duration of the exhibition we hope a bigger number of visitors will have a chance to come and have a look.
Obviously we still want to attract people who already have a good financial knowledge and are mainly interested in history! Therefore, we decided on the second part of the “permanent exhibition” in which we show a lot of the highlights of our collection. The nice thing is that all three parts (including the “special exhibition” are somehow interrelated.
Against this background the new setup is also quite helpful for guided tours: we can offer three different themes or a combination of them. A normal tour takes about one hour, but sometimes we have groups with less – or even more – time. Now we can be very flexible according to or customers’ wishes. 

detail from share certificate of the Chen Feng Spinning and Weaving Company
Detail from the share certificate of the
Chen Feng Spinning and Weaving Company, see above.
In the border the entire process is illustrated from the production
of the raw fibers through to the finish finished garment.

The special exhibition deals with the theme of globalization and our networked economy. What criteria or requirements were a part of your selection process?
For our previous exhibitions we have mostly tried to find a topic which has a relation to current debates and public interest. Globalization is such a topic – and almost everybody has his or her own idea about it. Isn’t it funny to watch people at “Starbucks” sipping their “latte macchiato” and “McDonalds” at the beach in Thailand? With that in mind, we did not want to explain what globalization is (that would have filled the whole 300 m² of our room), but raise some questions by showing how different aspects of our life in a globalized world are interrelated. We also wanted to show that globalization is not a new phenomenon. That is why we selected a mix of securities from the 19th century and shares of today’s well-known brands.  
For the exhibitions, you research historical backgrounds and write the texts, also a catalogue is prepared. How do you assemble the necessary information ?
When you plan an exhibition, you have to have a story in mind, which you want to tell. The main exhibition texts follow that “story line” – for them it is important to do a broad historical research. We have a good library inside the museum, which contains a lot of antique books on different topics. We acquired the biggest part of the books in this reference library from J. Schmitz, whose original collection of historical securities also forms the foundation of our museum collection. For the more modern historiography, I can revert to my own collection of books. Often enough I have to buy additional books – either for myself or for the museum library.
When it comes to writing the smaller explanatory texts for the individual certificates in the exhibition (which also need to have a link to the “story line”), Wikipedia is certainly a good start for the research. However, every information I take from there needs to be verified with different sources. The good thing about Wiki is that quite often the sources are referenced – and I do check them! Also, it is always better to start with Wiki-entries in the original language (e.g. don’t rely on a German entry for an American or British company!). For companies that still exist, it is helpful to check out their own company website. They often have a page about their history. Sometimes you also find information in digitized archives, etc. If you don’t get any further with your internet research, you have to go back to your books! You see: if you want to write about something, you must like to read first! And I love it!

Landes-Hypothekenanstalt für Niederösterreich
English: State Mortgage Institution for Lower Austria
50 Schilling Gold Pfandbrief 7% 1928, unissued
A pfandbrief is a bond issued by a mortgage credit bank.

part of the Financial Instruments exhibition section
double-click image to enlarge

Ten years Wertpapierwelt. What an achievement ! What has been one of your toughest challenges so far ? Can you easily deal with stress, e.g. when handling deadlines ?
Yes, I think we can be proud of 10 years Wertpapierwelt! It cannot be taken for granted that a specialized museum like ours survives its first few years in the multifaceted museum landscape of Switzerland (and Europe!). The biggest challenge so far was obviously to set up the museum from the start. I had an empty room of 300 m² and a huge pile of cardboard boxes with historical securities. For me, a totally new type of project! We had to make an inventory of the collection and digitize it, find an exhibition designer for the scenography, get professional help for the lighting and other conservatory aspects, etc. However, that is the kind of challenge I like! Now, every new exhibition is a also a new challenge. You never know in advance if people will find your topic (the story) interesting, or if the ideas you had for the setup really work. The stress in the final period of the exhibition building is just part of it. Of course, a recurring challenge is securing the funding for each new exhibition – but that is a different story ..

The vignette on the pfandbrief depicts Kreuzenstein Castle.
The castle, located near Leobendorf, was mostly destroyed in the
Thirty Years' War (1618–1648).  In 1874 Count Wilczek ordered the
reconstruction of Kreuzenstein. For the reconstruction, a variety of
valuable historical original components were used that Wilczek had
located and bought on numerous research tours throughout Europe.

All good things comes to an end, so here is my final question: what is your most favorite activity in your job ?
It is hard to tell which part of my job I like most. I certainly like the research phase. That is the time when I also learn a lot. During the setup of an exhibition it is also very exciting to coordinate and work together with a team of very different people from historians through exhibition designers, carpenters and electricians, translators and many more. Once the exhibition is open for public, I enjoy telling our story to visitors during guided tours. Every group is different! You need a different approach for school classes than for a group of elderly people, or for a sports club, or for banking professionals – or of course the scripophily collectors. Last but definitely not least, I love the creative work when you think about a new topic, write a new concept and start the discussions of how it could be presented. There are so many other things which are really fun. Honestly: I love my job! 

The networked business world - Globalization and shares
accompanying booklet for the special exhibition
A5 format, 27 pages, about 40 mini color images
price 5 CHF (4 EUR)
available from
Wertpapierwelt's shop 

Dagmar, thank you very much for the interview and your catching enthusiasm.


PS : Tip for the visitors with extra time:  a fictitious trading workplace has been setup on two PCs with access to the collection's database. The database contains both the fronts and backs of all the approximate 10,000 securities in the collection.

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  1. Franky, thank you very much for this great interview! Hans-Georg Glasemann from the German Scripo Club EDHAC

  2. Thank you Georg. I had a marvelous guest in the studio !