At Museum of American Finance, Challenge of Cataloging History in Real Time

Leena Akhtar is fielding more questions about the Great Depression than ever.

As exhibits and archives manager at the Museum of American Finance, Ms. Akhtar curates the displays, such as frozen pork belly that illustrates “Commodities” or rococo cash registers that mesmerize the teenage girls. The mission of the Smithsonian-affiliated teaching museum is, in part, to educate the public about capitalism. But September’s events presented the museum with a new challenge: Document the current financial turmoil.

Admissions are up roughly 10 percent since the summer, according to Linda Rapacki, the director of visitor services. (The museum closed last fall for a move; it reopened in its new location at 48 Wall Street in January.) Tour groups are booked almost solidly through the fall and winter.

“A lot of people go into the gift shop and they buy bulls,” Ms. Rapacki said. “I think that number has gone up.”

Visitors are interested in the “Market Fluctuations” exhibit, which depicts a thick red line, representing the Dow Jones Industrial Average, spiking and plummeting over a timeline of 20th-century history. The line stops just short of 2010. What’s next? Ms. Akhtar has a few ideas, including a screen tracking breaking news. But since the crisis unfolds daily–and “everyone who’s associated with it right now is a little bit busy”–planning is difficult.

“Who knows?” she shrugs. “Tomorrow’s headline may be the thing to put up.”

Objects will surface in the decades to come, as banks release records and people who own crisis-related material realize what they’ve got. (A framed portion of ticker tape from the 1987 crash arrived at the museum only two months ago.) Ms. Akhtar will likely begin soliciting items a year from now. Since so much of today’s financial world is electronic, she is unsure what they will look like.

“We’re entering a new era of the way that information is conveyed, preserved,” she explained. “I’m curious as to what objects are going to come in–because it’s not going to be the same kind of objects that you were getting for the ’29 crash.”

Currently, Ms. Akhtar is collecting clean copies of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for the archives. She regularly rushes outside to photograph the protest art and performances taking over Wall Street.

Perhaps more than anyone, Ms. Akhtar, who has a background in history and finance and a picture of John D. Rockefeller above her desk, appreciates the Street’s latest incarnation. These days, the sidewalks teem with camera-laden tourists, ogling the ground zero of the financial crash (or visiting the museum). During earlier panics, crowds of people would flood the intersection at Wall and Broad, struggling to get in touch with their brokers.

“It gives me another layer of understanding of what is actually happening here, this atmosphere,” she said. “Definitely, history is being made right now.”

At Museum of American Finance,  Challenge of Cataloging History in Real Time