My Richmond journeys continued on day five with an idea that came from looking at the Richmond tourist map. There was an icon that said “The Fed Experience.” “What does that mean?” I wondered.
When I got home for the day, I looked it up and found that it was a special exhibit about economics within the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. In order to visit, you have to first submit a request online with your name, driver’s license number, the license plate number for your car and the date and time you are coming.
When we pulled up to visit the next day after camp drop off, we had even more security checks. They ran my driver’s license again, they peered at the underside of my car and asked if I was carrying any weapons. Fortunately, being a mom driving a minivan with a young son in tow, my threat level was perceived to be low. It was a very intimidating experience. You pass through yet another security gate and a metal detector.
No pictures are allowed inside the building. The building itself is huge and is so many stories tall I could not fit the entire exterior of the building in my camera frame.
Inside, the lobby has a vintage 1960’s opulence with sleek, contemporary lines and white marble floors. The first floor where the economics exhibit is located has cavernous ceilings, leather sofas and a beautiful crystal sculpture that looks like a waterfall dropping from the ceiling. I am not sure if heads of state come to visit this building but it feels like the sort of place where you could easily host anyone from CEOs of the largest corporations to the President himself.
The Fed Experience exhibit is off to the right as you enter. The first exhibit that greets you is a 27 pound bar of gold worth roughly half a million dollars at current prices. I have only ever seen such a thing in movies so it is surreal to see it in person. After that, you watch a movie where kids and others are answering questions like “What is inflation?” and “What does the Federal Reserve do?” This last question was hard even for employees of the Federal Reserve to answer.
The exhibits are geared for schoolchildren around 10 and up. You can “check in” with a digital camera that takes your picture and then flashes it up on a montage of visitor photos on a big screen. An exhibit then talks about the history of the Federal Reserve system and you can listen to various people talk about how economics affects them on a daily basis (although all of the audio feeds were inoperable at the time I visited). There is a buy/sell simulated trading system for kids to play, a wall of exhibits about the history of economics and video feeds about the economic crisis, bank bailouts and the Fed’s policy.
While most of the exhibits are a bit dry and educational, there is another sexy point of interest in the form of a clear glass box containing $400,000 in cash (in $1 bills). When I first saw this, I questioned the appropriateness of this choice of exhibit. Between the box of cash and the gold bar, you got the sense that money didn’t really mean the same thing to the Federal Reserve that it does to “regular” people. I wondered if that much money being out in the open posed a theft risk. Between the money and the opulence of the lobby, it seemed like the perfect setting for the next James Bond heist.
However, having thought about the money, I think it does work in this display context. First, it serves as a powerful hook to bring people in to look at the exhibit that might not come otherwise. Second, it does make you think about the value of money. You learn from the exhibits that the key function of the Federal Reserve is to determine how much our money is worth. To the Federal Reserve, things like gold bars and dollar bills really are just “stuff.” They have value because the Federal Reserve makes it so. Third, you also learn that the future of money is electronic. One day, gold bars and dollar bills may seem quaint to us.
It was an interesting visit. I learned a lot and realized that having a Federal Reserve bank in your city does make your city a bit unique. There are only 12 Federal Reserve banks and nearly all of them are in the eastern parts of the country. (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco) Each bank has its own President and can have a different political and economic opinion. It seemed to me from the exhibits that the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond aligns itself more closely with conservative principles and that they feel that the current national Federal Reserve policy is too expansive.
Another valuable point of information I learned is that each Federal Reserve bank has its own publications that you can receive for free. They give you professional economic analysis that I find is better than most newspaper coverage or even the paid investing newsletters I have subscribed to. You might check the Federal Reserve bank closest to you to see if they offer this insight. You can sign up to receive email updates from the Richmond Fed here.
After our Fed Experience, we picked up my daughter and decided to check out a tip from the Richmond Visitor’s Center about a fountain for kids at the Short Pump Town Center. It was still scorching hot outside. I had planned ahead for this visit and brought swim suits for my kids to wear.
The pop jet fountain is a neat fountain within an outdoor mall. The fountain jets constantly cycle between different water intensities and heights. Sometimes they are barely on and sometimes there is a gusher in the middle. I found a bench in the shade to watch as my kids played.
My daughter jumped right in and thought it was great. My son found the fountains threatening (after all, they did gush over his head) but began to enjoy them after he found some puddles to jump in.
It was fun to sit back and watch all the children play. There was a definite difference between the boys and the girls. Without fail, the first thing every little boy wanted to do upon entering the fountain was to stand right over a jet and let the water squirt up his leg. It was hilarious to watch! None of the little girls did this. The little boys also were interested in making the water spray in different directions by putting their head in the spray or stepping on the jets to make the spray fan out under their feet. The little girls were more interested in dancing around the jets and touching the water with their hands.
My daughter came over to me at one point complaining that she had bumped into someone and had a minor injury. She sat down to rest with me for a bit. After a few minutes, a mom came over with her little boy. “My son keeps asking me, ‘Mom, where did she go?’” the mom explained as she approached. The mom said that her son was showing my daughter how to run through the fountain jets and they somehow ran headlong into each other. We chatted for a bit and I learned that her son was about a year younger than my daughter but a head taller. “Yes, we’re not small people,” the tall mom laughed. It was my daughter’s first taste of the charm and persistence of the Southern gentleman.
We hung out at the fountain for a bit longer and while we were waiting, I was approached by a Mary Kay saleswoman with the charming pitch that she was “looking for face models.” For me, makeup time has been sacrificed in favor of sleep while raising small children but I admired her effort and enthusiasm.
We dried off and headed back to pick up my daughter from camp. It had been a full week of activity for all of us and we had three more weeks of this schedule to go!