Rush hour was darker and quieter than usual, as the effects of Hurricane Sandy continued to haunt lower Manhattan. It had been weeks since the storm, but many of the buildings and storefronts in the financial district remained closed. Power generators hummed from inside trailers in the streets, a poor substitute for the bustle of the crowds that normally would fill these blocks as the work day gave way to cocktail hour.
Inside the Museum of American Finance at 48 Wall Street, an event that had been postponed because of the storm finally got to take place. The rescheduled gathering was either intimate or modestly attended, depending on your perspective. The occasion: a commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Barings Bank, and the opening of an exhibit chronicling the bank's history-from its illustrious years as a seat of power in Europe to its role financing important American developments (it bankrolled the Louisiana Purchase in 1803) to the firm's shocking downfall in 1995 at the hands of a rogue trader in Singapore named Nick Leeson.
There were treasures on display from the Baring Archive, and special insight from bankers who had worked at the firm or had encountered its legacy at others places, like ING, the Dutch bank that acquired Barings out of bankruptcy for Â£1.
But somehow the evening felt bigger than Barings. Between the exhibit itself and the nostalgists in attendance, it was more like a commemoration of all the artifacts of banking made obsolete by technology, of all the disasters, financial and otherwise, that have befallen Wall Street in recent years, and of the cruel evolution continuing to displace people and traditions just one block away at the New York Stock Exchange.
Christopher Steane, head of wholesale lending at ING and a trustee of the Baring Foundation, offered a scholarly bit of history about the materials and business deals on which the "Barings in America" exhibit is based. Having joined Barings in 1978, he also spoke stirringly of the great pride he felt as a young man working for one of Britain's most important banks, and of the sense of loss he felt the night he learned of the firm's collapse.
"I felt like a character in a Victorian melodrama," he recalled, reading from the script-his own-of a remembrance he had offered in 1995 as part of an oral history project with the British Museum.
His description is a perfect match for the feeling I saw on people's faces outside Lehman Brothers' headquarters on the morning of its bankruptcy in 2008. It's the same feeling that so many on Wall Street express in describing the moments when their tradition-bound firms seemed to be making their last stand.
Poignantly, sponsors of the Barings in America exhibit include Citigroup and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which easily might have joined Barings on the list of storied franchises no longer with us, had 2008 turned out differently.
"The parallels are a bit uncomfortable, really," Steane admits. But anyone else who knows enough to see these parallels will appreciate the authenticity, and educational aims, of the exhibit. Visitors are invited to review source materials connected to five of Barings' historic U.S. deals and decide whether they, too, would have backed the ventures.
The exhibit, on view through April 27, ends with a table of iPads, where you can input your decisions and compare your performance against that of Barings and of fellow visitors. It's a fun, high-tech finish, but next to the thick, dusty ledgers and worn stock certificates under glass in the adjoining rooms, it's also a reminder of what else is fading away into history.
Editor in Chief