Week 17: Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Agency mission: The mission of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) is to develop and produce United States currency notes, trusted worldwide. As its primary function, the BEP prints billions of dollars – referred to as Federal Reserve Notes – each year for delivery to the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve operates as the nation’s central bank and serves to ensure that adequate amounts of currency and coin are in circulation. The BEP does not produce coins – all U.S. coinage is minted by the United States Mint.

The above mission refers to the work of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing as a federal bureau, not as a visitor attraction. Nevertheless, going on a tour to see this literal money-making in process is a popular excursion in DC.

While I was working at two large museums in DC (the Capitol Visitor Center and the Newseum), I would often chat with out-of-town visitors about where else they were going during their trips; I also received questions about the hours and locations of other museums. Among the sites tourists were likely to mention or ask me about, were the White House, Supreme Court, monuments,  Library of Congress, National Archives, Arlington National Cemetery, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Mount Vernon, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, National Gallery of Art, “the art museum” (which I believe usually referred to the National Gallery, but could also mean the Hirshhorn), International Spy Museum, Ford’s Theatre, Washington National Cathedral, and Bureau of Engraving and Printing. I have now been everywhere in the DC area that tourists were apt to mention!

BEP’s status as a DC site familiar to non-DC residents means that it might end up on many experience-seekers’ checklists. Experience-seekers want to partake of all the major, must-see sites in a given place; they have a literal or figurative checklist, and each site they visit is an accomplishment on that list.

The experience of visiting BEP began with a video showing and narrating the process of producing money. A tour guide then led us through some hallways with windows overlooking the process in action, and we got to see the real thing.

We watched people and machines turn paper into legal tender. We learned that it wasn’t really paper (American bills are 25% linen and 75% cotton). The tour guide talked about the steps of printing, inspection, and cutting that happen before the money becomes, officially, money. She also explained the many features in place to stymie counterfeiters.

When the guide mentioned which denominations are in circulation and which used to be, I suddenly remembered a recurring, bizarre feature of my dreams: encountering bills with weird denominations, like $13 bills or $27 bills.

Educational Series of 1896 at Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Educational Series of 1896 at Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Beyond this strange association, however, I also noticed several serious real-life topics that could be explored in-depth in conjunction with the tour. Though the tour was informative as a basic overview of money printing, I think it would also be interesting to delve deeper into subjects such as:

  • The history and present state of counterfeiting, and steps everyday people can take to confirm their money is real. (Since many people are interested in crime and detective work, this topic could prove popular.)
  • The role of the BEP in the economy overall, and how decisions are made about how much money to print and distribute.
  • Questions about the choice of words and images on bills, such as the inclusion of the phrase “In God we Trust” and the exclusive selection of white male historical figures.
  • The artistic aspects of money. Several elements of BEP reminded me of learning about stamps at the National Postal Museum (in fact, BEP used to print postage stamps). However, while NPM emphasizes that stamps can be seen as tiny works of art, no mention of monetary notes as art was made on the tour.

This last topic is addressed a bit in the exhibit space in the gift shop. A display of the Educational Series of 1896 shows three bills depicting allegorical scenes of Americans learning from History, Science, and Electricity. The designs were made by commissioned artists under the leadership of BEP Director Claude M. Johnson, who intended to bring higher artistic standards to money. These notes are considered “some of the most beautiful U.S. currency ever produced” – but the dense designs caused ink to smudge and made the notes impractical as legal tender.

What money-related topics would you enjoy learning about in a museum setting? (And does anyone else dream about strange currencies?)


February’s blog theme is Visitor Motivations.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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