Opening the Door to Financial Regulatory History: SEC Historical Society's Online Museum, Launched in 2002, Finds Greater Relevance in an Era of Financial Upheaval

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At a time when financial regulatory reform is capturing headlines, an online museum administered by the SEC Historical Society is granting users from Wall Street to Main Street equal access to resources, relics and research material. The online galleries at sechistorical.org preserve eyewitness accounts, oral histories, correspondences, research papers and photographs. An interactive timeline features hundreds of digital artifacts. Interviews and round-table discussions cast light on current topics.

The museum is growing its virtual collection monthly at a time when the worst financial upheaval since the Great Depression has added relevance to the history of financial regulation and the pivotal events that helped shape securities law.

"Where are we going if we don't know where we've been?" asked Deloitte & Touche USA Deputy CEO Robert Kueppers, a society co-founder. At the first planning meeting in 1999, he joined former SEC chairmen Harvey Pitt and David Ruder and attorney Paul Gonson to plot the preservation of regulatory history With the dot-com bubble already inflating and Enron lurking a few years away--events that would vault securities regulation to prominence in American households--the founders were ahead of the curve.

At first, the founders weighed the merits of a brick-and-mortar museum. Faced with all the tasks and costs that go with securing and maintaining real estate, founding Executive Director Carla Rosati created and opened the purely virtual museum and archive in 2002.

"The notion that you had to get on an airplane or train to look at documents in Washington didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense in modern times," Kueppers said.

The museum and archive has no physical repository It digitizes borrowed text and images, then returns them to their owners. Every item on view lists its provenance so that visitors who want to can locate originals.

Physical space is not an issue, but the virtual museum places its own limits on the size of its collection. "We don't want anything available elsewhere online," said Rosati. The collection excludes, for instance, speeches that the SEC or other regulatory agencies post online.

In 2009, the virtual museum drew more than 100,000 visitors from the ranks of finance professionals, scholars, investors and others. Visitors can find unmatched documentary evidence of forces that spawned securities regulation. A case in point, said Kueppers, is the 1940 McKesson & Robbins Report that dissected the securities scandal of its day, perpetrated by swindler Philip Musica. "It's a great example of seminal thinking about a case that involved inventory fraud," said Kueppers. "It helped shape some of the standards still in place today for audits of public companies." Until the virtual museum made the findings and conclusions in their entirety available in digital form, the out-of-print McKesson & Robbins Report languished out of sight from the general public.

For a window on the private thoughts of regulatory framers, annotated drafts of original securities laws bear personal notations by James Landis, an architect of the 1933 and 1934 securities acts. Over a long weekend in a Washington hotel, said Kueppers, Landis and two colleagues crafted the laws that created modern markets and the SEC itself. Later, Landis became the second SEC chairman, succeeding Joseph Kennedy.

The interactive timeline charts the progress of market regulation by decade since the 1930s in the context of national and global, but unrelated, events. In 1970, for instance, the Securities Investor Protection Act and the advent of RICO laws aimed at organized crime accompanied the U. …