Imagine if historians could find a way for members of the public to be regularly exposed to important historical figures? Or if visitors could have an idea of what history is valued in a country within the first day of their arrival?
Yes, this might seem needlessly sentimental, but lately I’ve been giving some thought to the idea of public history and money. I’m going to give some thoughts on the issue and suggest that money reflects and shapes the public’s historical consciousness.
I know you’re wondering, what’s the point of even considering this? When we’re exposed to money on a regular basis it’s safe to say we rarely pay attention to more than the color (unless you’re American), and even that’s a stretch because most of the time we’re paying by debit or credit. But printed currency is still out there, and for some, especially the immigrants and tourists that enter a country, a scary and exciting part is figuring out the money. What a country chooses to place on their national currency can be very telling, even if the vast majority of the population couldn’t care less. It gives a quick and dirty summation of elements of the country’s past, what its current values are, even elements of its natural history. There’s a reason that whenever changes in currency are proposed debates start flying thick and fast.
By nature money is nationalistic, and it’s meant to be. When the Euro was unveiled the banknotes were kept generic, as was one side of all of the coins, but the second side of each coin has a distinctly national symbol. Looking at a country’s money it’s reasonable to assume that what is depicted is valued by that society (and its historians), but it’s a conversation that should happen. I don’t envy the people who have to make this decision.
Canada’s Choice of Symbols
Looking at Canada’s money, we value our prime ministers. A lot. Canada’s money is very formulaic. One side changes every couple decades or so to feature different national symbols of some kind, but with the exception of a brief stint between 1954 and 1969, John A. MacDonald and Wilfrid Laurier have been constant figures since 1935. Robert Borden and Mackenzie King arrived in 1969 and have been there ever since. In fact, the people shown on Canadian money remains unchanged since the same year as Woodstock and the moon landings. I may be showing youthful enthusiasm, but Canada has changed a lot since then!
But even if we hold judgment on when we chose who to put on Canadian money, there’s still the question of why. I’m not a political historian by any stretch of the imagination, and that’s probably why I have a hard time reasoning why these four prime ministers are the four Canadian figures we have chosen to represent the country. It raises some interesting questions. If historians today were to choose four important Canadians today, would we choose the same ones? Does the public know who these people are? More importantly, does the public care?
Whether or not people care is important. History requires interest, and any opportunity to expose the public to history should spark attention. For most people who look at our money, that interest is not likely to be there. Visitors to the country could safely assume that Canada values the history of old white guys, and unless they do further research, that is as deep an interpretation as they’re going to get.
The problem is that there are so many other stories to be told. Historians are aware of the dangers of narrow interpretations and their impact on present day assumptions. The broader the history portrayed, the more inclusive it can be to include stories of people who are not white, male, Anglo-Saxon protestants.  It takes a wide variety of people to make a country, and it may seem pandering, but there’s something to be said for looking down at a bank note and seeing a picture of someone you can relate to.
In my own experience, I was very excited when I was in New Zealand and I saw a picture of a woman on their $10 bill. I quickly learned that this was Kate Sheppard, a prominent suffragette, and I likely would have come across her at some point during my stay in the country, but the fact that I still remember who she is and what she did comes from dealing with money on a daily basis. New Zealand money also includes a mountain climber, the queen, a Maori lawyer and politician, and a Nobel Prize winner. Looking at the series it gives some idea of past and present culture there.
Across the ditch in Australia they’ve chosen to have a man and a woman on either side of all their banknotes. These include a social campaigner, a poet/journalist, an opera singer, and a former transported convict, and those are just the women. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Indigenous Australian author and inventor David Unaipon on the $50. Given the human rights record in Australia, I emphasis again that I was pleasantly surprised.
As I thought about these examples from my own experience, I was curious enough to look at the banknotes of a country I know nothing about. In Uruguay, their money includes a feminist poet, a composer, and a modernist painter. I still don’t know anything about Uruguay, but my impressions of the country are now shaped by this knowledge.
Trends vs. Reality
There is a trend in many countries towards the inclusion of ethnic minorities and some level of gender representation. Skeptics may call this pandering and political correctness, and it’s true that inclusiveness may represent more the social ideal than the social reality. Just because money is diverse doesn’t mean the country itself will be any more inclusive. But I argue that gestures do make a difference to the perception of a country’s history and the country itself. Diversity in who is featured on banknotes at least acknowledges that a wide variety of people contributed to that country’s history.
I look across the border in the United States where there is a debate about including a woman on their money. Even opening a discussion about the contributions of someone other than white presidents is a huge step, and it promotes an awareness of the history of women in that country. There’s never a way to please everyone about who is actually depicted, but there’s also a danger that by sticking with tradition, what could be a diverse platform for discussing a country’s history ends up being very monotone and say little at all. Some countries have chosen to switch the people they put on their money on a regular basis. Meanwhile here in Canada, if we as public historians are meant to consider the histories of numerous cultural and ethnic groups, perhaps we should start by looking in our wallets.
1 Strong-Boag. “Experts on Our Own Lives: Commemorating Canada at the Beginning of the 21st Century.” The Public Historian, Vol. 31, No.1 (February 2009), pp. 46-68.