Bank of England Museum review (Sep 2014)
This is out-of-date! I have been here again since I wrote this review
I quite like the Bank of England Museum. It sounds quite dry and boring on paper, but if you are prepared to give it a chance and read all the stuff on show, then it's a decent way to wile away an hour. Once you're past the security scanners and the big burly guards at the door you can have a nice little wander through four hundred years of English history.
The first room concentrates on the building itself, starting with the piddly little affair where it all began, and on to the John Soane's replacement. I always thought that the Soane's building was the one we had today, but it turns out that his one was knocked down and remodelled relatively recently (in the 1920s). The only bit that survives is the ground floor curtain wall that runs around the edge. Normally I let out a little sigh when I see an old building crumble into dust, but having seen the pictures I think I prefer the new one (...don't tell anyone I said that though).
Then you move onto the history of the bank itself, and why it had to be established. It's all serious stuff, as you would imagine, about government finances and the City's battles with the king, but it's interesting enough if you like your London history.
The next room has got a lot of old charters on display, and a bit about the early governors, and there's a nice model of a street scene too -- complete with horses and carts and hackney cabs on poles. Then they explain about stocks and shares, the South Sea Bubble, and the National Debt, and offer up a nice collection of early bank notes (including one for a million quid!).
All of the rooms look nice up until this point, but then you get treated to a very fine piece of interior architecture which opens up into a domed roof (the Rotunda), with lots of scantily-clad marble ladies around the edge, holding up the concrete lintels. Apparently this is where they hold their temporary exhibitions, so it may have changed by the time you come, but today it was all about the First World War, and how they allowed women to enter the workforce. (I found it quite amusing that they placed all this 'women's lib' stuff next to a troupe of chiseled beauties, holding up the lintels). And alongside the beauties is the most beautiful thing of all -- gold! They've got a genuine gold bar locked up in a box, and you can stick your hand through a pipe and try and lift it up. I tried. And I couldn't. I couldn't even budge it a single inch -- it weighed more than me. It was amazingly heavy, so I don't fancy your chances of stealing it. It's not the kind of thing that you can stick down your trousers and run away with.
After that you can have a trip down memory lane, because they've got all the half crowns and sixpences from the days before decimalisation. They've got all the older coins too -- a very shiny collection of coins dating all the way back to 1688.
Then it's on to our modern-day money and how they combat fraud. I learnt quite a bit in this section. Did you know, for example, that there are some little microdot letters underneath the queens head? The next time you've got a bank note in your pocket have a look at the spiral patterns at the base of her neck (on a £5 note they are square patterns instead) -- they are actually made up of tiny little letters spelling out how much the note is worth. Good luck trying to see the writing without a magnifying glass.
Museums like this are never going to be to everyone's taste. I'm sure the majority of people will be bored silly by it (especially your kids). But if you enjoy your London history (like me) and you like looking at old photos and drawings of the city (like me), then I reckon you'll probably enjoy it (like me).
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