Special Exhibition at the Swiss Finance Museum: From the Very First Bank to Neobanks

Special Exhibition at the Swiss Finance Museum: From the Very First Bank to Neobanks

The new special exhibition “Banks in Transition: From Counters to Apps” has opened at the Swiss Finance Museum. Read below how you can experience the technological transformation of the banking industry in Zurich.

“Clanq,” “Yuh,” “Zak” – what reads like a speech bubble in a comic book is actually challenging the livelihood of traditional banks. We’re talking here about neobanks, i.e. banks that do not operate prestigious buildings in prime locations, do not employ any client advisors, and tend not to sponsor any sports clubs or other associations. Customers of a neobank log into their portal online, pay bills electronically, and purchase stocks via an app on their smartphones, and they do all that any time of the day, 24/7/365. That’s the banking of tomorrow. It appears that the world of teller halls, Goldvreneli coins, and savings account passbooks will soon be a thing of the past.

Which Bank Is Actually the Oldest One?

The new special exhibition “Banks in Transition: From Counters to Apps” currently on view at the Swiss Finance Museum enables visitors to reexperience the entire spectrum of Swiss banking. Museum director Andrea Weidemann and her team of two co-curators have brought a remarkable exhibition to life in a compact format. Nothing has been left out. The exhibition starts off with an ornately handwritten promissory note issued by the bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena in 1720. Founded as a pawn brokerage for the poor in 1472, the Italian financial institution today is the world’s oldest bank still in existence. Brought to the edge of bankruptcy by loss-making derivative trades in 2013 and nationalized thereafter, it has frequently been referred to as a “zombie bank” ever since.

Bank Leu, the First Modern Bank in Switzerland

Most of the sections of the exhibition focus on the evolution of the banking industry in Switzerland, which began to form from the year 1700 onward in two key locations: Zurich and Geneva. In 1755, Bank Leu – the first “modern bank” in Switzerland – was founded in Zurich on the initiative of a group of private bankers. Over the century that followed, local savings banks and regional banks came into being to manage industrial workers’ savings deposits. They were joined later on by the cantonal banks, whose clientele mainly consisted of the middle class and farmers.

As world trade gradually gained momentum and money was needed to finance it, equity funding became socially acceptable. And the first two big commercial banks on Swiss soil came into being in the mid-19th century with the founding of Banque Générale Suisse in Geneva and the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt in Zurich.

Banks Aren’t All Created Equal

In a lively and engaging way, the exhibition supplies all kinds of background knowledge about why each type of bank has different characteristics and plays in a different weight class. The 59 regional banks and local banks in Switzerland numerically still form the biggest group in the country today, but their aggregate total assets are only barely one-fifteenth the size of the combined total assets of the two banking giants Credit Suisse and UBS.

A Fresh Look at the Swiss Banking Industry

“The history of the Swiss banking industry is also the history of Switzerland itself and the country’s progress,” Weidemann explains. The chapters of this history are cleverly arranged in the exhibition. Between human-tall montages of historic photographs from the 1960s and 1970s, visitors meander from information boards to media tables featuring interactive elements and video messages from financial experts. In between, quotes from the likes of Max Frisch and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg evoke smiles and chuckles. “We deliberately aimed to broaden visitors’ field of vision on the subject of banking and money,” Weidemann says, explaining the background behind these projections. Whoever wants to could easily spend three hours taking in the exhibition.

From Payment Slips to Online Banking

The evolution of the Swiss banking industry can also be comprehended chromatically from green to blue to red and to orange, the colors of the ubiquitous Swiss payment slips that became so commonly familiar over the decades. This may baffle young visitors to the exhibition: members of Generation Online Banking have perhaps never filled out a payment slip and schlepped it to the bank because online banking emerged back in the late 1990s and a while later smartphones brought the first mobile banking services onto their diminutive displays.

We deliberately aimed to broaden visitors’ field of vision on the subject of banking and money.

Swiss Finance Museum Director Andrea Weidemann

Neobanks, Robo-Advisors, NFTs

Online and mobile banking mark the start of a massive and far-from-finished transformation of such a traditional business like banking because if credence is paid to the predictions, neobanks and apps will dominate the market a few years from now. The sections of the exhibition that inform visitors about this thus befittingly take the shape of two table-sized tablets that let them interactively explore banking and retirement-planning apps. Visitors can also try out a robo-advisor and learn about trends like cryptocurrencies and NFTs. By this point at the latest they will have become thoroughly aware of just how rapidly the banking industry – and ultimately our entire world – has changed over the last three decades.

The Swiss Finance Museum Contributes to Fostering Financial Literacy

Nostalgia and visions of the future balance each other out on a total of 300 square meters of exhibit space at the Swiss Finance Museum, helping it to address and appeal to different generations of visitors. The Swiss Finance Museum has also taken up the cause of fostering financial literacy among the public. “Fifty school classes paid us a visit in the first half of 2022 alone,” Andrea Weidemann reports. Added together with all other visitors, the museum in the basement of the headquarters of SIX on the west side of Zurich racked up an average of around 10,000 visitors per year prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Weidemann is confident that the new special exhibition coupled with the permanent exhibition on the history of the Swiss financial industry will enable the museum to top that number in each of the next two years.