It might seem a bit of an odd museum to visit, many people don’t know there even is a Bank of England Museum. Hidden away on a back street, behind the skirts of the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’, modestly and quietly advertised, is a lovely little museum.
It can be a little tricky to find the time to visit, particularly if you have kids, as opening hours are restricted to 10am-5pm, Monday to Friday with no weekend opening, but it is well worth seeking out.
The museum covers not only the history of the Bank and the origins of the money in your pocket but it also has some insight into the building itself and its various incarnations including the role of Sir John Soane as an early architect. My favourite section is the Rotunda which houses the current temporary exhibition – Capturing the City: Photography at the Bank of England (which runs to March 2017). There are some fantastic pictures and stories covering the Roman remains found during reconstruction in 1954, and memorable tales of banking staff including the ‘Bank Giant’, a two metre tall employee whose body was permitted to be buried in the Garden Court to keep him out of the clutches of Grave Snatchers (his body was later moved to Nunhead Cemetery).
This is my third visit to the museum and I have come to see their newly refurbished permanent display, the Banknote Gallery. The re-design has been timed to coincide with the launch of the new polymer £5 due out on the 13th September 2016. The gallery looks at the world’s earliest paper money from the Ming dynasty China and one of the earliest Bank of England notes from 1697. It raises some fascinating questions when you see the early flimsy scrappy notes. How did anyone ever believe they could replace a piece of gold in your hand? A mere 30 years from the Great Fire of London, no doubt many were skeptical of putting their faith in paper money when it could go up in a flash of fire.
While the early bank notes look so different from the cash in our wallets today, one thing that hasn’t changed is the efforts of counterfeiters and the existence of forgeries. There are some intriguing examples of forgeries, from a hand-drawn note from 1809 by a French prisoner held on a prison ship in Chatham to World War II forgeries from Operation Bernhard, a Nazi plan to flood the UK with fake money to destabilise our economy. So dangerously accurate were these counterfeits that the Bank of England withdrew all notes above £5 as a precaution. Perhaps my favourite is the £5 altered to look like a £50, perhaps on a dark night you might get away with that one!
Can you spot the efforts made to change this 1970s £5 note into a £50?
There is also the very human reminder of the impact of the forgeries with a staggering 300 people sentenced to death for counterfeiting from 1797-1817.
Master drawing of Worcester Cathedral, 1999.
I think what surprised me about the exhibition was the delicate and beautiful artwork behind the notes design. There are some intricate drawings and development sketches include the Queen’s portrait from the 1960s which highlight the subtle changes over time from a young monarch at the start of her reign.
Can you spot the polymer £5?
The gallery brings us bang up to date with a glimpse at the new polymer £5, due to be launched on the 13th September. The new material is designed to be stronger, safer and longer lasting. I was lucky to have a quick feel of the new note under a watchful eye and I have to admit it feels considerably different to the notes we are used to.
The tricky part for an exhibition on such a tactile subject is allowing that hands on experience in the museum. The curator, Jennifer Adam told me how access was a key criteria in the gallery with the space opened up for wheelchairs and pushchairs, new display cases with better visibility and easy to reach iPads for interaction. The space feels light and airy and on a hot stuffy day the air conditioning was certainly very welcome.
This intaglio plate is for the £50 in 1994. You can touch the Queen’s face (not normally allowed!)
There is an intaglio plate used to print the raised detail on banknotes that you can touch, it is just a shame the text and invitation to touch is partly hidden underneath. Jennifer confirmed a more tactile version is on the way but not quite ready for the press launch. I was also pleased to see that even in a small space thought was given to comfort with seating provided in a rather fetching imitation of a crate of money!
Sadly this crate of money is not real…
As fewer and fewer bank branches survive on the high street, the notion of a bank teller or cashier is fast becoming obsolete. Equally as the cash in our pockets becomes replaced by contactless payments and Apple pay with smart phones, perhaps we more than ever need the Bank of England Museum and the Banknote Gallery. It is a far cry from the days when I saved my pennies to get my hands on the NatWest Piggies.
So when that new polymer £5 arrives in your hands and you can’t quite believe it is the real thing, you know exactly where to go!
For more information on the Bank of England Museum please see the website – http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/museum/visiting/default.aspx
The Banknote Gallery at the Bank of England opens on 7th September 2016
The new polymer £5 will be issued on the 13th September 2016. http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/polymer/Pages/default.aspx