New Museum a Shrine to Filthy Rich

The titans of Wall Street have opened a new museum that pays tribute to the markets, the dollar and, of course, themselves.

The museum is housed in the stunning former headquarters of the Bank of New York -- founded by Alexander Hamilton -- and is a block away from the New York Stock Exchange.

Inside is a hodgepodge of exhibits ranging from a $10,000 bill to gold bars to original stock certificates.

"Our purpose is to bring Wall Street to Main Street, and to show the importance and richness of our financial markets and promote a deeper understanding," said museum president and CEO Lee Kjelleren.

Visitors who shell out $8 to tour this tribute to capitalism -- the only public museum of its kind -- will get to see an original Ford Motor Co. stock certificate signed by Henry Ford, a ticker tape from the great crash of 1929 and a Treasury bond issued to and signed by President George Washington.

Money, Money, Money

To put it simply, this is a place for those who like money. But the general public can also learn about how the markets work and have evolved, and trace the history of America's currency from the barter of beaver pelts to individual state currencies to the modern dollar. There is even a small display on the current subprime mortgage crisis.

An interactive display of entrepreneurs has various CEOs telling the stories of how they founded their companies. Some are success stories, and some, like the airline People's Express, failed.

"The idea is that we can learn from our mistakes," said David Tarnow, who was hired to interview the executives and create the exhibits.

The gift shop is a dream for any hedge fund titan or Wall Street baron looking to redecorate.

It is stocked with bull and bear cufflinks, money artwork and canceled stock shares from companies that include Pan American World Airlines, the Pennsylvania Railroad Co., the American Tobacco Co. and the American Telephone and Telegraph Co.

But the ultimate gift for the money freak who has it all might just be a sofa made out of nickels, which sells for $120,000.

The museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. It used to be housed in a tiny, below-ground space from 1988 to 2006. The new space at 48 Wall Street is roughly 10 times as large.

The museum raised about $9 million to open its doors. The money came from private donors and Wall Street bigwigs such as Goldman Sachs, the New York Stock Exchange and founder John E. Herzog, the retired chairman of Herzog Heine Geduld, which was acquired by Merrill Lynch in 2000. It also received $1 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Kjelleren estimated that it would cost $3 million a year to run the museum, and he hopes to get 100,000 to 125,000 visitors in the first year. Roughly a third of those guests are expected to come from overseas, a third from the New York area and a third from the rest of the country.

The museum also hopes to be a de facto visitor's center for the New York Stock Exchange, which has been closed to the public since September 2001. There are displays of the bond and stock markets, and loudspeakers pipe in the clatter and commotion of the trading floors.

"We want people to get the sense of the buzz and energy" of Wall Street, said Jonathan Alger of C&G Partners, the museum's designers.

Next Best Thing to NYSE?

Before it closed, the stock market attracted 700,000 to 800,000 visitors a year, the museum organizer said. While the museum tries to replicate part of that experience, it does not come close to replicating the scope and excitement of the real thing.

But the museum's directors don't expect tourists to completely pay the bill. The bulk of the revenue, according to Kjelleren, will come from renting out the large space -- for $25,000 to $30,000 -- at night and during weekends for corporate events and weddings.

Kjelleren said he personally would like to see museum branches in London and Tokyo some day, but notes that is his personal vision, not that of the board.

Richard Sylla and Robert Wright, both financial historians, authors and professors at the New York University Stern School of Business, are the primary curators of the permanent exhibits. The exhibits were designed by New York exhibition design firm C&G Partners and were built and installed by fabrication firm Maltbie.