Newest Review: ... merchant William Paterson, is told. The original proposal and Charter of the Bank of England, approved by William III in 1694, are on displ... more
The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street
Bank of England Museum (London)
Member Name: MykReeve
Bank of England Museum (London)
Date: 07/05/01, updated on 07/05/01 (1051 review reads)
Advantages: Informative displays, Excellent videos, Free admission
Disadvantages: Disinterested staff, Only about banking(!)
Another of London's little known museums is the reassuringly free Bank of England Museum. Located, unsurprisingly, in the Bank of England itself, just a few yards from Bank Underground station, the museum reveals the history of this financial institution, as well as explaining a fair amount about what national banks actually do, and how they operate.
The museum has been open since November 1988, though still seems not to get that many visitors. The Bank's story is told with several multi-media displays, with videos detailing major events in its history, from its establishment, through the Gordon Riots, to modern techniques for printing bank notes.
The exhibition itself is relatively small, but will still take about an hour to tour. You start off by entering the Bank Stock Office, a late 18th century banking hall, reconstructed to resemble the design of Sir John Soane. The reconstruction is as faithful as possible, with exact glass and paint colours used. Mahogany counters around the edge of the room are arranged as they were in the original banking hall. There are even some mannequins in the period dress of clerks and customers at the far end of the hall.
The Bank Stock Office is also the site of the museum's temporary exhibitions. For example, when I visited in late April 2001, there was an exhibition on the subject of forgery, including plates used in the manufacture of banknotes, and some of the museum's collection of counterfeit notes. This was pretty interesting, because it showed the various techniques the bank has employed to make forgery more difficult over the years – from the introduction of watermarks, to more complicated designs.
Around the edge of the room are displays in cabinets showing the architectural history of the bank, and explaining about banking in England before the Bank was established.
The next few rooms tell the story of the Bank up to the Nineteenth cen
tury. In the first room, the story of the foundation of the Bank of England, by Scottish merchant William Paterson, is told. The original proposal and Charter of the Bank of England, approved by William III in 1694, are on display here, along with a ledger recording all of the names of those who subscribed to the Bank's original £1.2m loan capital – all of whom were guaranteed an 8% return on their investment by the government!
From here, we follow the bank's original opening in Mercers' Hall, its move to Grocers' Hall later that same year, and its final move to its present location on Threadneedle Street in 1734. Over that forty year period, the Bank had to deal with several competitors, most notably the South Sea Company – which was defeated when the "South Sea Bubble" burst. The next room describes the Bank's activity in the Eighteenth Century, managing the increasing national debt, and withstanding the Gordon Riots of 1780. There's one of the Bank's few £1,000,000 notes on display, which was used for internal accounting, along with correspondence between the bank and some of its customers, including George and Martha Washington.
The next area of the museum is the Rotunda, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, dating from the 1930s. Showcases around the edge of the Rotunda complete the chronological history of the Bank, describing the opening of additional branches of the Bank of England across the country, the adoption of the Gold standard, the two World Wars, the abandonment of the Gold Standard, and the Bank's nationalisation. These displays are well constructed, and tell the story of the Bank in a reasonably interesting way, with a well-selected collection of items telling the Bank's story, including several satirical cartoons. There is also a display of the Bank's impressive collection of silverware, much of which dates back to the Bank's establishment.
As you enter the Ro
tunda, you pass between animatronic caricatures of William Pitt and James Fox, debating the merits of various banking systems. In the centre of the Rotunda is a display of gold bars, with a stack of 59 facsimile bars in a case right in the middle.
Just off the Rotunda is a display of banknotes, with some of the Bank's enormous collection of notes from throughout its history on display. Examples of all the Bank's notes, through to the previous "historical" Series D set of bank notes (with Wellington, Nightingale, Shakespeare, and Wren on the £5, £10, £20 and £50 respectively) are on display, along with an early printing press. There's also an interesting interactive terminal, explaining the various security precautions installed on the new £50 note, including holograms, watermarks, serial numbers.
Upon leaving the Rotunda, you pass into a small exhibition on the "Bank Today", with several interactive features. There are several video terminals, at which visitors can watch informative displays about the Bank's role in the British economy. These are very nicely presented, and a viewer can choose exactly how much information they want, and therefore how much time they spend watching the video. There is a modern trader's dealing desk here, and some interactive terminals, at which visitors can find out what it's like to be a dealer, with a quick game.
An exhibition of the Bank's current collection of banknotes – Series E – is on display (Stephenson, Darwin (previously Dickens), Elgar (previously Faraday) and Sir John Houblon (the Bank's first governor)) along with information about why the individuals and specific designs were chosen, and including original sketches made for the note designs.
The museum is very nicely presented; it's kept very clean, and display cabinets are very nicely presented. The text in the displays is very informative, and you do l
earn a great deal about the Bank's history. Videos throughout the museum are informative, particularly the final interactive video in the "Bank Today" section of the Museum. All of these videos clearly tell visitors how long they are, so if you're visiting on a tight schedule, you know how much time they're going to take. Classical music plays in several of the museum's rooms, which is nice and restful too.
When you enter the museum, bags have to be presented for inspection by a bored-looking Bank employee, who sticks some sort of probe in there. Coats can be left at the cloakroom with a bored-looking member of staff. Visitors are watched in exhibitions by bored-looking staff members, and the shop is watched over by a virtually comatose employee. Overall, the staff seem spectacularly uninspired by their work, and are less than eager to answer any questions you might have about the Bank, which is a great pity.
The Bank of England shop is pretty good, with the usual collection of Museum stationery (pens, pencils, erasers, bookmarks and the like), but also includes some more unusual souvenirs – such as some nice paperweights filled with shredded banknotes (£19.95 for one in the shape of a pound sign). Definitive sets of coins minted by the Bank are available to buy, including the new £2 and £5 coin designs.
The Bank of England Museum is completely free, which is great, and you can pick up a free leaflet to guide you round it. The museum's displays are very informative, and give a good summary of the history of the Bank itself. There's enough here to amuse most visitors for about an hour, and as its located right in the centre of London, there's plenty of other things to do in the area afterwards. The only things that let the museum down are that if you have no interest in banking, you'll probably find it dull (not a great surprise that...), and the museum'
s indifferent employees.
The Museum is open from 10am to 5pm every day from Monday to Friday. There are often temporary exhibitions on display, and in the school holidays activities are put on for children showing how coins are minted. You can phone 0207 601 5545, for a recorded message about what's on at the museum.
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