From profit-seeking merchants to shareholder capitalism (LS-ME-576)

This museum education learning scenario explores the roots of financial institutions, professions (like stockbrokers and bankers) and historical events with a big impact on economic history.


Some people describe the world we live in nowadays as the Capitalocene, i.e. the era in which private capital speaks louder than collective rights. How is it that the economic and even cultural system of capitalism came to dominate our lives and shape our worldview?

Inspired by the creative and interactive ‘travelling’ exhibition of the Museum of Capitalism and the excellent collection of the Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, I decided to zoom in on the fascinating evolution of the commercial – ‘merchant’ – phase of capitalism, roughly from the end of the Middle Ages in Europe until the start of the first Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.

Upper secondary school students who recently got acquainted with economic history, will be challenged to think about recurring trends since the late medieval and early modern era in Europe and critically reflect on the evolution of financial or free market capitalism.


Since there is no clear academic consensus on what capitalism is – the term evokes so many different characteristics and the universality of the notion seems somewhat controversial – I asked participants to establish a fitting framework and demarcate the phase of ‘commercial capitalism’, through cooperative and inquiry-based learning activities.

Once they got more familiar with the concept of capitalism and more specifically with this particular historical stage, I invited them to take part in the Historiana presentation From profit-seeking merchants to shareholder companies, stock exchanges and banks, I made, to be moderated by the educator.

Participants were challenged to discover and discuss parallels and to debate recurring trends in a comparison between ‘merchant’ capitalism and financial capitalism, the system that seems to be dominating the twenty-first century world they live in. This Historiana tool is an excellent way to integrate chunks of text combined and alternated with video fragments, pictures I took in the forementioned exhibitions and question rounds.


In the end, I concluded this learning scenario with a ‘talking circle’, both to discuss how participants felt after the implementation and to gather feedback as an educator. This group conversation was a good way for them to process the new information, the teamwork and the use of new digital tools.

Would you like to know more about this learning scenario? You can download it below:

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Public Domain Mark 1.0: the featured image used to illustrate this article has been found on Europeana and has been provided by the Rijksmuseum.

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