Saieh Hall’s new exhibition honors University of Chicago economists

There’s a hidden gem nestled inside Saieh Hall for Economics, home of the Department of Economics and the Becker Friedman Institute for Economic Research. A small, restored conference room now showcases the history of economics at the University. Opened on March 8, the “Chicago Economics Experience” exhibition features an introduction to the work of Nobel laureates Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, among others.

“It’s beautiful—really visually interesting and intuitively set up,” said Nathan Peerbloom, a fourth-year economics major in the College. At just 215 square feet, the octagonal DelGiorno Room packs an outsized punch of information. A central display case features the Nobel Prize medals, Presidential Medals of Freedom, and other awards that Becker and Friedman garnered over their lifetimes.

This collection of memorabilia is complemented by video, images and text lining the walls to describe their careers. Two mounted touchscreens go deeper into topics like monetary policy and the economics of crime. A future website will delve even deeper into the history of economics at the University.

With plans to mount new exhibits two to three times a year, the Becker Friedman Institute intends to use the space to highlight the diverse intellectual riches of University economists. “If you listen to the popular buzz, there’s a myth of a unified school of Chicago economics,” said Lars Peter Hansen, the David Rockefeller Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, Statistics and the College. “We thought the popular myth was a little simplistic. If you probe the past, there’s no unified way of thinking, just an incredible set of scholars interacting.”

The current installation also features lesser-known aspects of the careers of Becker and Friedman. For example, Friedman not only challenged Keynesian economics, he advocated the shift from a draft to a volunteer military and influenced development of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

When Becker first proposed the title “Human Capital” for his groundbreaking book on the economic value of a worker’s education and experience, his publisher resisted, fearing he would be perceived as reducing humans to mere machinery or inputs. But Becker won, and today the phrase “human capital” permeates discussions in business, education and many other fields.

While tourists and prospective students are likely to be prime visitors to the new space, Peerbloom thinks his fellow students also will find it worthwhile to stop by. After all, economics has long been the most popular major in the College, with nearly a quarter of each class choosing it as their focus. “As an economics major, you can be so focused on mastering the basic skills of the discipline that you forget economics is as broad as it is,” he said.

That’s exactly the kind of insight Hansen hopes the space will prompt. “We hope it will whet people’s appetite to learn a lot more about economics in general and economics in Chicago.”