If you believe in money you probably should stay away from the Chase Manhattan collection on display at the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology.

It's a great collection, but the problem is that it points out how essentially silly the concept of money is. Money is anything that's generally accepted in exchange for services and things of value. In various times and places that has included shells, beads, feathers, elephant hair and . . . United States currency.

When banks began to fall like rain during the Depression, President Roosevelt declared a "bank holiday"-shutting them all down before the rest could collapse. Almost overnight money disappeared. Checks and IOUs helped some, but the great need was for currency .

In Enterprise, Oregon, the town fathers printed "one buck" notes on buckskin; the Unemployed Relief Club of Waterloo, Iowa, printed "one hour" notes, good for that much labor or its equivalent value in groceries; and the owner of a drugstore in Pismo Beach, California, went out onto the beach and picked up clamshells, which he issued as 50-cent pieces. Everybody knew it was silly, but they had to have money and everybody conspired to go along with it.

That's essentially what we do when we pass U.S. currency around. It isn't worth anything, actually, since we went off the gold standard. Take one of the Treasury Department's pieces of paper to a bank and all they'll give you is other pieces of Treasury Department paper. It might just as well be wampum or bird of paradise feathers.

Still, few things fascinate like money, and few collections rival the one Chase Manhattan donated to the Smithsonian. But it may leave you feeling as though you had a pocketful of wooden nickels.