The Bank of England Museum opens a new gallery on the 7th September 2016 that tells the story of the banknote from Ming dynasty paper money to the new polymer £5 note which is packed with security features, historically significant designs and printed on polymer rather than paper.
The origin of banknotes was in Ming dynasty China and the gallery features some of the earliest paper notes from China and the ‘running cash’ notes used as payment in place of a pile of gold. The Bank of England started to issue banknotes in 1694 and some of the earliest Bank of England notes are on view with other classic designs like the ‘white fiver’ which lasted for 100 years.
As soon as banknotes appeared, so did forgeries and the Bank of England has undertaken a constant battle to stay ahead of forgers, even some the simple black and white notes of the 18th century contained security features, complex watermarks and secret marks that helped Bank clerks identify genuine notes from forgeries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, forgers faced the death penalty if caught, the harsh punishments may have been a deterrent to many but there were criminals who would take the risk for the potential high rewards. On a completely different level were the notes which are evidence of Operation Bernhard, the Nazi plan to flood and ruin the economy of the British Empire during the Second World War. The notes were intended to be dropped by plane over Britain to be used by members of the public. While this never happened, the Bank was forced to withdraw all notes over £5 and re-design the £5 note after forgeries began to appear.
The gallery includes some of the intricate original design artwork, much never previously displayed, which illustrates the complete process of creating a note. This includes material by Banknote designers including Daniel Maclise, Harry Eccleston, Stephen Gooden and Roger Withington with initial design sketches, detailed master drawings, test prints and printing plates for scores of different notes.
In the gallery is a historic piece of design machinery called a geometric chuck lathe, it was built-in 1905 and was in use until the 1980s, the machine created the ‘Spirograph’ patterns that decorated the Series A (1928) and Series C (1960s) banknotes. A combination of art and mathematics, the lathe generated an almost infinite number of complex patterns, virtually impossible to copy exactly, either by hand or machine.
The Bank of England’s newest note, the polymer £5 is considered the most sophisticated Bank of England note ever designed, its thin plastic material also makes it stronger, safer and cleaner. Its design are a see-through window, a gold and silver Elizabeth Tower and a portrait of Winston Churchill. The new £5 will be followed in summer 2017 by a polymer £10 note featuring Jane Austen and, by 2020, a polymer £20 note featuring JMW Turner.
The new gallery is a good example of how everyday objects like paper money have a fascinating and complex history. When paper money was introduced to the public in 1690s, the reaction was not positive and people preferred the security of gold and silver. In the modern world it is so much part of everyday life that no one questions its use. The gallery is part of the small Bank of England Museum which has free admission and has a series of galleries that tells the story of one of Britain’s most important institutions..
Entrance: Bartholomew Lane (off Threadneedle Street), London EC2R 8AH
Opening hours: Monday-Friday: 10am-5pm (last entry 4.30pm).
Closed Public and Bank Holidays and weekends.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
If you would like further information about the exhibition, visit the Bank of England website here
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