Bank of England celebrates 325 years with 325 “curiosities”

The exhibition includes banknotes baked in apple pie, dexterity tests for bank staff and a “Cold War calculator”.

cold-war-calculator
The “Cold War calculator”

To celebrate its anniversary, the Bank of England is putting on an exhibition featuring an object from each year of the bank’s history.

325 years, 325 objects will go on display at the Bank of England Museum in July to coincide with the bank’s birthday at the end of the month.

The exhibition is “not a chronological trawl through history” but a “lively display of significant surprising, beautiful and unusual items” which covers art, design, politics and major historical events, according to the Bank of England Museum.

Jennifer Adam, curator at the Bank of England Museum, says that they wanted to pick out “curiosities” from the bank’s history, which show a “range of different themes” highlighting changes in “payment techniques, working life, and office culture” as well as reflecting events like the Jacobite Rebellion and the Cold War.

Adam says that the hard part was not finding 325 objects to display but “narrowing down” the list — the bank’s collection comprises some 50,000 objects.

“It has let us pick out things that wouldn’t have seen the light of day otherwise,” Adam adds.

Adams says that they wanted to show a different side of the bank, which until recently had been represented as “all white men”.

banknote
An early bank note with a female payee

When choosing an early bank note to display, for example — notes were used as a way of transferring money then, and not as everyday currency — Adams selected one where the payee was a woman.

“We wanted to pick out stories that showed a more diverse picture,” Adam says.

The £40 banknote from 1702 has Elizabeth Head as its payee, which would now be worth around £9200.

Another social issue that the exhibition touches upon are world events and their potential impact on the economy.

The 1959 “Cold War calculator”, for example, reflects the uncertainty at the time of the nuclear arms race.

Part of contingency planning for the economy and financial system, the “chilling artefact” estimated the damage and fallout from potential nuclear explosions based on distance and size of the bomb.

Included in this exhibition are sketches of historical figures, including Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer featured on the £5 note, and a sketch of scientist Isaac Newton for a £1 note that was taken out of circulation after a year.

Until the 2018 poll where the bank asked the public for suggestions of a famous figure to put onto the £50 note, the process of banknote design was internal.

justine-smith
Justine Smith’s flower sculpture

The circulation of banknotes is the theme of the exhibition’s only commissioned piece of original artwork, by British artist Justine Smith.

Smith has created a botanical sculpture for the exhibition. The floral arrangement features a range of British flowers made out of now-unfit £50 notes and uncirculated test £50 notes.

Smith says that she is using banknotes as a “symbol of labour, strength and continuity – of putting down roots”.

The surprising life of banknotes is highlighted in another piece on display from the 1920s.

Part of the bank’s remit is to identify the legitimacy of “mutilated” bank notes. The 10 shilling note, from 1929, was baked in an apple pie, but was in “surprisingly good condition” and therefore still legal tender.

“It shows the strange journey that money that gets lost and found again goes on,” Adam says.

polymer-beads
Recycled polymer beads

That journey has become even stranger in recent times, demonstrated in particular by a display of recycled polymer beads from 2018 polymer bank notes.

One of the main advantages of polymer notes is their durability —they stay in circulation much longer than paper notes. They can also be reused.

“It’s possible to create more plastic out of them and so it can be recycled into something else.”

The final piece in the exhibition, from 2019, is a birdfeeder made out of the recycled polymer.

coin-sorter
A coin sorter on display

Another focus of the exhibition is how technology has played a part in the bank’s staff throughout its history.

A coin sorter from the 1890s shows how silver coins were counted before the advent of modern technology.

Working like a “set of sieves stacked on each other”, the coins are shovelled in at the top and are then worked through several layers.

Differently sized coins are filtered off at each point as the smaller coins fall through.

dexterity-test
Dexterity test

A hundred years later, currency had evolved — there were more bank notes in circulation — but automatic counting machines were still not commonplace.

As clerks were sorting through thousands of notes at a time, they had to be “pretty dexterous”, Adam explains.

The manual process tested people’s dexterity; they used tweezers to sort washers and bolts onto the small pegs attached to the board.

The process required “speed and delicacy” which was crucial for the sorting process.

In keeping with the eclectic display, the exhibition has a “modern cabinet of curiosities feel”.

“We’d like people to be able to dip in and out of the plays without feeling it has to be read from start to finish.”

The building, originally designed by John Soanes in 1694 and extensively redeveloped in the 1930s, provides a “beautiful” but “quirky setting for a museum display”, says Adam.

For that reason, the museum opted for a straightforward display system.

“The design is very minimalist – there is a lot going on with 325 objects, so we wanted something simple that would let the content lead.”

There is also an interactive architectural timeline, where visitors can learn about the building’s history.

325 years, 325 objects runs from 2 July 2019 – 15 May 2020 at the Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane, EC2R 8AH. Admission is free.

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