Thomas Hockenhull, curator, British Museum
The 2008 banking crisis plunged the UK into a recession from which it has been struggling to recover ever since. However, this crisis is not the first to have affected Britain and it is unlikely to be the last. Here in the Department of Coins and Medals we decided to look at the bigger picture in an exhibition looking back at Britain’s financial crises since the 1700s.
Drawing upon our extensive collection, we found we had an object that related to almost every crisis to affect Britain since the advent of organised banking. This material ranged from share certificates for companies that failed and notes from failed banks, to reports and recriminations about crises. In some cases these objects are fragile and sensitive to light, meaning that they can never go on permanent display.
For the rest of the exhibition we wanted to show how ordinary people have, and will continue, to respond to financial crisis. Numerous cartoons and satirical prints have been produced over hundreds of years relating to crises, including a James Gillray print from 1797.
Additionally, the artist Steve Bell – perhaps best known for his work in The Guardian newspaper – has loaned a work from 2011 entitled ‘Bank Levy’ that depicts a banker as a distraught fat cat in a suit having its claws clipped by the Chancellor George Osborne.
Other exhibits, for example, include a champagne bottle given out by Northern Rock to its employees when the Building Society demutualised to become a bank in 1997. This object was retained by its recipient, a former employee, and provides an ironic reminder that demutualisation was greeted optimistically, supposedly enabling Northern Rock to expand its business more easily.
Instead, history records that its investment portfolio would fail within 10 years, triggering the first run on a UK bank since that which occurred during the collapse of Overend, Gurney and Co. in 1866.
The collapse of Overend, Gurney and Co. features elsewhere in the exhibition and, in both instances the banks failed because their customers lost faith in their ability to protect and reinvest their savings.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a contemporary sculpture by Justine Smith, a London-based artist. Made from real UK banknotes built into a house of cards, the artwork neatly symbolises the occasionally precarious nature of financial investment.
I hope many people will get a chance to come and see the display, to find out how 300 years of boom and bust have helped to shape Britain’s financial landscape.