While plenty of screenwriters have spun yarns about intrigue at the White House or the heart-pounding machinations of the FBI, few have ventured to tell a story about the Federal Reserve System, a complex agency that—for all the power it wields over the nation's economy and for all the recent interest in the future of its chairmanship—often seems lacking in scriptworthy personal narratives.
But at the September opening of "The Fed at 100," an exhibit at the Museum of American Finance commemorating the central bank's centennial anniversary, it was suddenly easy to start picturing the cinematic possibilities.
The museum, strategically located in the heart of New York's financial district, hosted a cocktail reception where Fed old-timers gathered in tight circles, recalling bygone traditions like the "milk squad," a team of dairy vendors who roamed the bank's floors in the 1950s, distributing glass bottles to scrawny-looking staffers. Creators of a screwball workplace comedy like "The Office" could build a whole episode around that.
Then there's Madeline McWhinney, the first female assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a special guest at the exhibit opening. The obstacles she faced when she became an officer in 1960 rival any of the prejudices shown in a period drama like "Mad Men."
"Once I had to go to the Chicago Fed for a meeting," McWhinney says, "and they said I couldn't attend—no women were allowed." The Chicago office relented under pressure from McWhinney and her boss, but demanded that she be chaperoned on the trip. She spent the visit in the company of "somebody's elderly secretary," McWhinney says. "She even sat behind me at meetings."
The museum exhibit focuses on the 100th anniversary of both the Federal Reserve System as a whole and the regional reserve bank in New York. (President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, and the New York Fed, one of 12 regional reserve banks created under the legislation, opened the following year under the leadership of former Bankers Trust chief Benjamin Strong.)
The exhibit's opening night clearly belonged to the hometown crowd. Guests at the reception included three New York Fed presidents—current chief Bill Dudley and former heads Jerry Corrigan and Bill McDonough—who nibbled on hors d'oeuvres and happily swapped stories with staffers.
The evening's convivial mood was in keeping with the people-oriented spirit of the exhibit, says David Cowen, president and CEO of the museum. "A major goal of the exhibit is to show the human side of the Fed in contrast to the way it's often viewed by the public—as a monolithic, mysterious entity," he says.
The museum did not focus only on bigwigs. It included "the perspectives of everyone from executives to security guards and secretaries," adds special exhibition assistant Sarah Buonacore.
Many of those perspectives were featured in the exhibit's showpiece: an audio tour of 100 objects representing the Fed's surprisingly colorful history. A pair of vintage embroidered party shoes prompts the revelation that the Fed once hosted fashion shows and lunchtime variety hours for employees. A miniature model of the Brooklyn Bridge spurs a tale from Vincent Lynch, who worked as a vault security guard at the New York Fed from 1959 to 1984. The bridge played an important role in the guards' workout regimen, Lynch recalls.
"We used to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and come back again" during breaks, Lynch says in the audio tour, "and go back to work and do our runs. We used to try to see who can go the fastest from the top floor all the way down to the basement."
Other objects on display recognize Fed traditions that remain alive and well. Staffers still slide magnesium covers over their shoes before entering vaults, just in case they get clumsy while handling the 28-pound bars of gold.
"The Fed at 100" is on view through Oct. 1 of next year. For virtual visitors, the museum's website, www.moaf.org, offers a link to a Flickr page featuring photographs of many of the objects on display in the exhibit. Audio descriptions of each piece are available at the phone number provided on the website.