There’s a cow in the museum!  Share

After all the banknotes and coins on display at the National Bank of Belgium’s Temporary Museum, in the fifth room a large cow makes a sudden appearance. But just what is this animal doing here?

Throughout the ages, livestock has played a key economic role among many peoples around the world. Representing great value, animals were typically used as a means of exchange or payment. The Romans initially used their cattle to engage in trade, and their language reflects this: pecunia, Latin for money, directly derives from pecus, which means cattle. The word has left many traces in English too, pecuniary signifying ‘relating to money’.

In fact, the oldest known currency in Rome was the aes signatum, used from the 4th century BC and referring to the economic value of cattle. These ingots cast in bronze were embossed with a range of designs, some of them showing bulls. The art cow in the museum features a drawing of one such aes signatum, with an ox motif.

Facsimile of an aes signatum portraying an ox and belonging to the British Museum © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Facsimile of an aes signatum portraying an ox and belonging to the British Museum © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

The cow claiming pride of place in the museum sports a range of different drawings and also features the Latin dictum pecunia non olet, which translates as ‘money does not smell’. The saying is ascribed to the Roman emperor Vespasian, even though he never actually used these precise words. The quote goes back to an anecdote about Vespasian recorded by Suetonius, a Roman historian and the author of De Vita caesarum (‘The Twelve Caesars’), a set of biographies of Rome’s first twelve emperors. According to Suetonius, Vespasian’s son Titus criticised Vespasian for levying a fee on the use of public toilets in the streets of Rome. Vespasian responded by holding up a coin directly derived from this new tax and asked his son whether it smelled bad. When Titus replied that it didn’t, his father observed: ‘Atqui ex lotio est’ (‘And yet it comes from urine’). Popular usage of the saying ‘money doesn’t smell’ probably dates back to the 19th century, though its origin – the idea that it doesn’t matter where the money comes from – does hark back to the old Roman story.

It isn’t just oxen and other livestock that were used for barter in the past: utensils, jewellery and other products have likewise served as currency at one point or another. Known as commodity money, various examples of such items are depicted on the museum’s art-dappled cow.

The art cow in Museum Room 5, painted by Sander Anseeuw © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

The art cow in Museum Room 5, painted by Sander Anseeuw © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Painted on the cow are a necklace and earring. Glass-beaded necklaces served as currency in Africa at one time. Though initially used by the upper classes only, their use spread through all layers of society. These glass beads were not just crucial to the economy, they also had a ceremonial role and played a big part in trade between Africa and Europe. Initially, Africans only accepted locally produced beads, but later Venetian-made ones were also used as payment.

The earring is Asian and was used as a means of payment in the Kingdom of Siam, or what we know as Thailand today. The silver earrings with monetary and ritual value were made by the Meo people of the Mekong valley.

One of the cow’s front legs is painted with copper bracelets that served as currency among the Teke people living in Congo and Gabon. The ornaments weren’t merely important status symbols, they also carried enormous religious value. These copper bracelets typically featured in dowries and offered married women the security of this type of money, which they’d wear as ornaments.

The brightly coloured feathers come from a bird of paradise. In Papua New Guinea, tribesmen would wear these feathers in their headdresses at ceremonies, and these too would be included in dowries. The ritual object also served as currency, initially in trade with China and from the 19th century also in dealings with Europeans. Because their feathers were so sought after for these uses, birds of paradise were soon facing extinction.

Leather moccasins from North America, decorated with beads © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Leather moccasins from North America, decorated with beads © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Featuring on the other flank of the art cow, these moccasins were made of buckskin and decorated with beads by the women of native American tribes. All women had their own personal and unique bead patterns, which were often passed on from mother to daughter. Moccasins were uniquely suited to long walks on the prairies, and their usefulness wasn’t lost on the white settlers who were having a hard time negotiating the prairies on their tough, unyielding shoes. And so they would buy the moccasins from the native Americans or trade them for products from Europe, turning them into a currency for bartering and trading used by both native Americans and Europeans. Some tribeswomen started producing moccasins on a large scale to meet the massive demand of the white settlers.

Specially designed for the Temporary Museum, the art cow is made from polyester and painted with graffiti and pencil by graffiti artist Sander Anseeuw. Born in 1985, Anseeuw started off working with graffiti and spray paint, later moving on to murals and works on canvas. The art cow design involved a great deal of research into commodity money and the euro, and fellow artist Ken De Prince helped Anseeuw carry out the project.

Aside from the Latin proverb and examples of commodity money, the cow also showcases a range of old coins and euro notes – all of them part of the museum’s collection.

Sien Smits
Museum guide


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  • Jewel: neckless, from the collection of the Museum
  • Commodity money: earring, from the collection of the Museum
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