The Museum and Learning Center at the New York Fed offers guided tours to school groups and the general public. Through a crafted storytelling experience, visitors learn about the roles and responsibilities of the Federal Reserve System.

The cornerstone exhibit for the Museum and Learning Center is “A Look Inside.” The exhibit functions as a visual backdrop for inquiry based tours lead hourly by museum educators.

Game Plan

  • Transform a 15th century fortress into friendly space.
  • Engage a range of diverse audiences (20,000+ visitors).
  • Stimulate student curiosity of STEM and economics.

Visitor Experience

  • Educational storytelling crafted for unique audiences.
  • Targeted and inclusive student programming.
  • High-touch engagement balanced with high-level security.

Background

Located in Manhattan’s Financial district, the New York Fed building is designated as a National Historic Landmark. Completed in 1924, the building was designed to project strength and stability for the nation’s newly formed central bank. The architectural firm of York & Sawyer was inspired by the facade, stone, and ironwork of 15th Century Florentine Palazzi.

The exhibit space originally opened to the public in 1924 and served as a location to purchase treasury securities. The 20,000+ square foot hall later functioned as an office before it was transformed into a museum in the late 1990s.

In 2013, the museum received a capital budget to modernize the exhibit experience. The casual tours program was transformed into the Museum and Learning Center, a high-touch program developed to engage, educate, and empower a broad range of visitors.

High-touch Entrance

A key element of the visitor experience was to create a friendly, welcoming encounter with an approachable introduction to economics. This challenge was unique with the fortress design, high-level security, and business operations.

The entrance to the Museum and Learning Center greets visitors using digital signage, with information personalized for school visits. A custom fabricated desk supports staff as they receive visitors and distribute the accompanying audio guide.

Flexible Exhibit Path

Early in the process, the design team identified the need for flexibility in the physical layout. The existing space contains limestone columns every 13 feet, interlaced with custom ironwork, and teller windows. It was critical that the exhibit infrastructure complimented these features, while accommodating the evolving tour path.

Modular panels were designed in proportion to human scale as one wandered the cathedral-like space. The triptych design also supported the three-part content narrative for both introductory exhibits.

Each design features iconography and buzzwords for quick educational takeaways and serves as a balance to the substantial content.
The design also uses infographics to visualize the nuanced government structure. The Fed’s decentralized system was created by Congress in 1913.

Extended Sight Lines

The layout of the Introduction Hall was designed to highlight the sight-lines. Nearly 20 custom vitrines of curated artifacts encourage the visitors to wander.

Each object was curated from archival research and in consideration of temperature/humidity fluctuation which can warp historical memento.

Modular Exhibit Walls

To compliment the existing architecture and need for flexibility, a series modular walls were constructed. Each unit is built around a scaffolding unit on cart wheels, and stand 7 ft tall to clear the existing iron work. An internal mechanical jack system allows for leveling on uneven floors. The series of walls scale in intimate proportion to the visitor, while not distracting from the Guastavino ceiling. 

The information architecture for each exhibit features an introduction wall with a key conceptual image/graphic supported by a series of “fun facts.” Supporting walls feature historic objects, such as a slice of the markets board depicted in the displayed image. Vitrines echo the abstract concepts in physical form.
A personal and fan favorite, the Inflation exhibit features vintage magazine covers from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, The content of each cover captures the sequential narrative, while the layout mimics that of a bar chart with jumping data.

Artifact Fabrication

Custom vitrines showcase a selection of artifacts that compliment the tour. Items were selected based on careful research and aligned to national education standards for economic literacy. Due to humidity, from the building’s lime and sand-stone facade, artifacts had to be reproduced to withstand a wide fluctuation in temperature.

This exhibit features a selection of news from the financial panic of 1907 and includes regional newspapers with pivotal events of the period. The laser cut skyline is a collage of several buildings home to the events or a reflection of the architecture of the period.
Each display is a fabricated box featuring imagery licensed from 100+ year old/out of print publications.
During the Financial Crisis, extraordinary measures were necessary to prevent a complete collapse of the financial system and the broader economy. Selected objects are on display from this period.
Selected from the New York Fed historical collection, this grey box once held security certificates that AIG had pledged to the New York Fed as a condition for a loan. The collateral was held in the Gold vault of the building until AIG repaid the loan in January 2018.
Yes, a camel! Featured in the museum before the modernization, the camel is another fan favorite. C.A.M.E.L.S. is acronym for the supervisory ratings systems used to classify a banks overall condition and considers: capital, assets, management, earnings, liquidity, and sensitivity.

Money Shot

Before the modernization the museum featured two large, bulky items displaying cash. Visitor studies revealed significant engagement with these objects and now serve as cornerstone learning tools on the tour.

Who doesn’t love money? The cash box on display was once used to transport currency between banks and Federal Reserve vaults. Each cash box can hold up to 300,000 bills. The tower to the right holds shredded currency, bills that are unfit for circulation and are cut by stainless steel blades into confetti like shred.
This 1920’s scale was originally used to measure gold deposits.

Archival Research

Historical research was completed with a variety of internal and external organizations. The mid-1920 WPA style posters below were discovered in-partnership with the San Fransisco Fed’s resource library, reproduced, and mounted at a larger scale.

In the mid-1920’s, the “Fed” was still new and the nation’s economy was plagued by a growing number of bank failures. The five posters, with their images of strength and stability, were part of a larger series designed for display at member banks. They were likely intended to inform the public about the Federal Reserve System and foster confidence in its member banks.
The historic posters were intended to inform the public about the Federal Reserve System and foster confidence in its member banks across the nation.

Disclaimer
The views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the position of the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author(s).