Exploring the BPI Museum and Library in Cebu

 

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The Bank of the Philippine Islands or BPI has had a long banking history in the Philippines. As the oldest bank in the Philippines and also the oldest in Far East Asia, no bank paints a clearer historical picture than the Bank of the Philippine Islands.

BPI was founded on 1861, and this year marks BPI’s 168th year upon its founding. The museum is free but open on appointment only. The BPI branch is still operating in the middle during office hours, and surrounding the bank is the BPI museum displaying the historical treasures.

Why do we need to know the history of finance and banking?

To say that money is the root of all evil is a naive statement: money is powerful in creating value and good to society—if coursed through the proper hands. It can solve many social problems and create value for the whole. It can fund wonderful projects and make people’s lives better. Again, this is with the caveat that it is coursed through the right hands.

Most recently, modern technology such as blockchain and cloud has enabled fintech e.g. the notorious cryptocurrency where money is 100% digital—and decentralized in a form of a public ledger where everyone can gain access to.

We have certainly gone a long way from barter and trade a thousands of years ago. Since then, money has evolved into many forms: trade goods, animals, precious metals, bank notes, plastic (swipe, swipe)…

It is clear to see that money isn’t a tangible, physical product. Rather it is a trust system; a very effective system to enable people to collaborate in a massive scale—not in terms of dozens or hundreds, but of millions, billions of people from all over the world.

Money is even more effective than religion or politics in organizing people to collaborate.

Now going back to the museum: again, please take note that you need a confirmed appointment prior to visiting the museum. Please call the number to book an appointment: Michelle G. Gorduiz - 0932 882 2229 or (032) 318-3533.

Inside the BPI Museum in Cebu

With a few other bloggers, we were invited by BPI to have a tour around the museum with the in-house curator and historian, Carlo Apuhin.

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 The BPI Museum and Library opened in 2011 that showcased the history of money and banking in the Philippines. BPI was formerly known as El Banco Español Filipino de Isabel II.

The namesake of the bank was after Queen Isabella II, but was deposed because some groups in Spain refused to recognize having a female as the sovereign head of Spain. Very sexist, yes, but it was the 1800s after all. Upon the formal abdication of the Queen, the bank changed its name yet again to El Banco de Español Filipino.

Located a stone’s throw away from Magellan’s cross along Magallanes Street, the museum is housed in a neoclassical style building built in the early 1900s. It had the timeless appeal as in found in classical buildings: high ceilings, marble furnishings, white-washed walls. In 1991, the building was declared a National Historical Landmark.

The building is designed by the famous Filipino architect Juan Marcos Arellano, and he can see his JMA initials incorporated into the building’s window grills. The building was the site of the bank’s third branch in the country, the first and second being in Manila and Iloilo, respectively. The bank opened in 1924, and miraculously survived during the WWII and Pearl Harbor bombings.

What you can see at the BPI Museum Cebu

If you are a history lover like myself, you would be able to appreciate the vast collection the BPI museum houses, especially in helping us understand our history in relation to money and finance; and how the earliest financial institutions were able to finance industrial and economical development in the country.

  • Coins

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 We start with admiring the gold coins from the Spanish period, going back to as far as the late 1400s. Known as Cob coins these coins are irregularly shaped, as if they were shaped by hand. The gold and silver coins were minted in Mexico and Latin America. Dos mundos or ‘ochos reales’ (pieces of eight) were also on display. The Spanish silver, during this time, was the accepted currency of the world at the time—even the pirates used them to trade around the Caribbean islands.

 The 15th century coins reminded me of Spain’s own relationship with money. In the 15th century, Spain was the wealthiest nation in Europe, having conquered and colonized a vast part of the world. 1492 was the transcendent year for Spain—bringing in gold and new riches from the New World. It was the the time of boom for Spain, the golden ages, and they were the most influential power in Europe in the medieval period.

The influx of gold was both a blessing and curse for Spain. Despite their almost unlimited access to resources, Spain declared bankruptcy nine time between 1557 and 1666.

What happened?

The Spanish failed to realize the basic economic forces at work: overflow of supply in the market meant a significant drop in the value of gold. In an effort to pay off their debts, they over-mined their gold mines and flooded the European markets.

Of course, it was much more complicated than that and there were a lot of factors (e.g., wars, inflation) that contributed to the bust of the economy.

 There is a collection of coins of varying Philippine currency denominations during Spanish rule from 5 pesos to even half a centavo! The historian shared to as that a 0.5 centavo could get one a kilo of rice already. I wonder if a 10-peso coin at that time could buy you a lot of land already?

Looking at the coin collection really reminded me the very valuable lesson on money: the money’s financial value is not on the intrinsic material in itself: neither the precious metal it was minted on or the paper it is printed on.

  • Bank notes

On the next display, we looked at the first ever Philippine bank notes, which were issued in 1852. The banknotes were called Pesos Fuertes, translating to ‘strong pesos’. Maybe because at the time, these notes could be redeemed for gold or silver coins.

In one display were BPI’s collection of paper money that had both Spanish and English versions. They are famously known as ‘Good Luck Women’ notes, printed in 1908. The designs were reflective of art nouveau illustrations that were famous at that time.

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The very first bank note printed in the Philippines was printed in BPI, 1 10 pesos fuertes bank note.

First banknote printed in the Philippines with the No. 0001 is the Peso Fuertes 10, bearing the face of Queen Isabel II and printed by BPI, then El Banco Español Filipino de Isabel 2

First banknote printed in the Philippines with the No. 0001 is the Peso Fuertes 10, bearing the face of Queen Isabel II and printed by BPI, then El Banco Español Filipino de Isabel 2

  • Other Artifacts

There’s more to see other than the coins and notes. There are rare and collector’s item that you can probably only see at the museum.

Have you ever seen a 100,000 Philippine peso bill? you need a brown envelope if you want to carry this around! There are only 1,000 printed and circulated in the world in commemoration of the Philippine Centennial Celebration. 1 of them is currently displayed at the BPI museum.

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We have ledgers that bear names of depositors, meticulously writing debit and credit notes by hand, in a beautiful calligraphy style handwriting that reminded me of my grandfather’s. It’s amazing how we lost the art of handwriting because of computers, and to see calligraphy done in something as mundane as in accounting books in the early 1900s!

We also got to see items such as the vault, teller’s cages and accounting machines that were used back in the day. I can imagine how the whole place must be abuzz with clicks and clacks and all the activity on a typical bank day.

Do you know that BPI also opened the first ATM machine in the country? The whole thing looks like a vintage washing machine! The financial institution is certainly a banking leader for almost two centuries, giving way to a lot of firsts in the Philippines.

Inside the BPI Library in Cebu

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The BPI Library is located on the 3rd floor of the same building, which is open to public from 9AM to 5PM. The library also has access to the University of San Carlos’ (USC) vast library system. You can find titles on various topics such as economics, business, finance, culture and children’s books, too. One can borrow titles and do their review here, for FREE.

 

You can also book the space for an exclusive event for free, but upon reservation. Give the library a call for at least a week’s notice.