A History Lesson for Bankers Everywhere

February 8, 2013

By Heather Landy, American Banker

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 1 pound.

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.

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