Specimen Florae Britanniae, by Justine Smith, 2019. Botanical sculpture. Image courtesy of the Bank of England Museum.
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325 years, 325 objects review

4 out of 5 stars
Chris Waywell

Time Out says

In the era of Bitcoin speculation, and when a tweet can affect exchange rates, it’s easy to see banking as a kind of sinister virtual miasma swirling around us and settling in the hollows of society. It’s not the whole story, though. The Bank of England is celebrating its 325th birthday with a show of 325 actual physical objects, the result of a (legal) rifling of its own vaults. They help to tell the history of the institution and make the abstract ideas of money and banking tangible. There’s even a genuine gold bar in a perspex box you’re invited to try and heft. It weighs 13kg and – according to a stock-market-style ticker above it – was worth just over £453,000 on the day I visited. There are delicate engraved plates for banknotes, filigree shrapnel from a WWI zeppelin raid and beautiful hollow bricks from one of Sir John Soane’s original roofs (the bank destroyed much of Soane’s visionary eighteenth-century architecture in the 1920s to create more office space – the show doesn’t talk about this much).


There’s also plenty of weird security stuff. Banks attract robbers (hence the term ‘bank robber’) and from its foundation in 1694, the Bank of England – as the most secure and famous one in the world – has been paranoid about getting turned over. There are guns aplenty here, to defend it from the invading French and uprising Irish, and you can learn about the bank’s ceremonial guards, complete with Trooping-the-Colour-style bearskins, that were still on active duty right up to 1973. Another kind of fiscal thieving also gets a mention. There’s an image of ‘The Bank Nun’ – a woman who lost her mind after her clerk brother was executed for forgery, and who would loiter outside the bank, endlessly waiting for him to leave work.


However you feel about the power wielded by banks – and it’s likely to be mixed at best – this is a sweet show full of fascinating, nerdy details about the stories of the people who created, debated and served this temple of Mammon. At its centre is a cute new sculpture by Justine Smith – a spray of perfect flowers made from decommissioned £50 notes. Thankfully there’s no mention of ‘green shoots’.


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