Money makes this museum go 'round

With the dollar sinking to new lows against the euro, oil prices piercing the $100 mark, and Wall Street on the verge of losing its once-undisputed leadership position in the world's capital markets, it might seem like a strange time to re-launch a museum celebrating the world of finance here.

But this Friday, the Museum of American Finance will re-open a block away from the New York Stock Exchange after a $9 million makeover.

Its goal is to become a major tourist attraction in lower Manhattan, an educational destination where busloads of school children can learn the basics about the country's financial system, and an archive of mementos, artifacts and other memorabilia from some of the nation's most famous financiers.

For the past two decades, the museum — the brainchild of John Herzog, a second-generation broker on Wall Street — has operated like the little financial collection that could. In a city stocked with world-class museums dedicated to art, science and culture, the Museum of American Finance wasn't even an afterthought. It was housed in a small space and promoted via word of mouth.

Herzog launched the museum as a reaction to the '87 market crash. During that crash, traders at his firm, Herzog Heine Geduld, were in an uproar. "It was crazy, like the movies, everybody screaming at once," he says. "I remember listening to the radio and realizing that Americans did not really understand what the capital markets were all about."

In 1988 Herzog secured a small space in the U.S. Customs House. His first exhibition drew 1,000 people. In 1989, an exhibit celebrating Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. Treasury secretary, attracted 6,000. Herzog knew he was onto something.

Through the 1990s, the museum skimped by on small donations. But in 2001, Herzog's big break came when Wells Fargo wfc reached out to the organization. Executives at the San Francisco bank, which was preparing to mark its 150th anniversary, realized that Herzog's museum would be the perfect venue for a New York exhibit of the bank's origins.

At a cocktail reception to mark the launch of the exhibit in 2002, Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich donated $1,000 to the museum for every year the bank had been in business. The $150,000 contribution was a "spectacular moment for us," Herzog says.

The museum's new location — on the site of what had been the original Bank of New York building dating to 1797 — is just one block east of the world's most famous financial landmark, the NYSE.

Until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NYSE had served as a financial museum in its own right, with tourists pouring into the visitors gallery each day to watch the action on the trading floor. For security reasons, the Big Board was sealed off from the public entirely after 9/11, but tourists still trek down to lower Manhattan to look at the building that symbolizes the center of world capitalism.

Now, with a larger space and a greatly expanded collection, the museum hopes to take advantage of the hordes milling around the front of the NYSE.

"The visitors' gallery of the New York Stock Exchange was always a huge tourist attraction," says Duncan Niederauer, CEO of the NYSE nyx. "We are going to be extremely supportive of the museum. It's going to tell an inspiring story." Niederauer says some 800,000 people come by the NYSE each year in the hopes of glimpsing the action on the trading floor. Now, they'll have a place to go.

In addition to original stock certificates from Ford Motor f, AT&T t and other famous companies from an earlier era, the museum will feature rare coins and gold bars and examples of high-denomination bills, such as $10,000 notes. In a nod to the greatest stock market crash in the nation's history, there's a tickertape from the morning of Oct. 29, 1929.

John Whitehead, former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs and one of the most prominent backers of the museum, notes that the financial-services industry has weathered downdrafts before. "It's a very significant time to have this museum opening now. It restores the spirit of Wall Street. It will be one of the many things that show Wall Street is here to stay."