The Bank of England Museum

“Everything is rational in capitalism, except capital or capitalism itself.”
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium
David Bussel, Bank of England Museum

Meditating upon the idea of the Bank of England Museum one is confronted with a problem: how to visualise or represent the British history of an economic system that is largely unrepresentable, that is neither visual nor visible as such. This problem, or what could be rightly called a contradiction, issues from the greater, internal contradiction that is the set of relations of capital itself, what Marx called “the moving contradiction,” those between labour and capital—or the class relation—of which the Bank both reproduces and is a creation thereof. As the Central Bank of the United Kingdom, the government’s bank, it issues legal tender, loans money to banks and building societies, establishes monetary policy through interest rates, safeguards stability through inflation and regulates finance1: it is, above all, a manager of capital flows. It does not directly fund the government but instead loans money privately for the government to tax. The Museum’s function, then, is to historicise the Bank and not periodise capitalism (or even money) per se although the Bank and capital are clearly collaborative and co-dependent with the system’s triumphalism.

The Bank’s origins and raison d’être lay in a specific historical juncture: the monopoly on early banking practices by the goldsmith’s of the City of London including deposit, lending and note issue; the equilibrium between Crown and Parliament; and severe governmental debt.2 Officially established by Royal Charter in 1694, the Bank’s foundation mission was (and still is) to “promote the public good and benefit of our people.”3 This can be understood to ambiguously disclose the Bank’s programmatic focus, where “public” and “benefit” actually referred to the merchant classes, whose form of mercantile economy along with other early, not dissimilar practices in Genoa, the Netherlands and Spain, would metamorphose into the neoliberal formations we know today as globalised capitalism.

The Museum itself is situated within the fortress-like curtain walls of the Bank of England, an imperial style structure occupying an entire city block, whose most celebrated incarnation (there were several) was created between 1788 and 1833 by architect Sir John Soane.

During his tenure as Surveyor of the Bank his draughtsman Joseph Michael Gandy famously memorialised Soane’s building as a ruin, from a then-impossible aerial perspective, in a drawing shown at the Royal Academy of Art in 1830.4 This extraordinary, nearly two hundred-year-old picture could be seen as an emblem of capital’s self-destructive and self-valorising character, of its then future history and our immiserated present and as a prophesy of the building’s own demolition in the 1920s.

Another picture of ruin is also inextricably linked to the Bank. Known familiarly as “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street", the Bank derives its namesake from the satirical cartoon Political Ravishment, or The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in danger! (1797), by artist James Gillray. The image depicts the then Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger seducing an emaciated old woman wearing a dress made of bank notes, sitting upon a money chest, her hands held in the air screaming “Murder! Murder! Rape! Murder! O you Villain! What have I kept my honor untainted so long, to have it broken up by you at last? O Murder! Rape! Ravishment! Ruin! Ruin! Ruin!!!” Pitt is here portrayed as a rapist, his left hand penetrating the woman’s pocket like a forced sexual act, with a list of debts seen on the floor under his hat, underlining his personal and Britain’s national indebtedness whilst portraying the status of women as virginal, weak and pliant. The historical context of this portrait would include the threat of invasion during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802), the heavy burden of overseas loans and considerable national debt. This kicked off a chain of events including the temporary suspension of gold with the provision of paper currency, which was later reversed statutorily in 1816, enabling Great Britain and other preeminent trading nations to fix their currency exchange rates and to regulate inflation.5

The museum is laid out in a simple circuit of six rooms where one enters and leaves through the same space. Although partially renovated in 2014, the Museum still looks as though it’s 1988, the year it opened to the public, with its modest displays (touch a real gold bar!) and temporary exhibitions (the “flora and fauna” designs on the building!) sadly lacking visual capture or curatorial imagination. The overall setting also appears slapdash and cheaply produced, which is ironic considering what and where it is. But of course, this is an pedagogical museum first and foremost, and an “apparatus” such that its mission is to formalise and put into discourse a mode of production and social order that is naturalised, ethical and without alternative, one that posits private property, the market, competition, entrepreneurship and accumulation as foundations of contemporary life as such.

After passing through the Museum’s entrance off Threadneedle Street and negotiating the guards and metal detector, one encounters a reconstruction of Soane’s Stock Office—the place where the Bank’s stocks and other government funds were originally exchanged—with displays of photographic reproductions of the Bank along with an interactive set-up, “navigating financial storms,” something akin to a ship’s hull where one can learn about monetary policy and financial logics, in both analogue and digital form.6 A chronological narrative then leads the spectator room by room through the vicissitudes of the British economy, a history that includes the design and printing of banknotes, interest rates, counterfeiting, security, debt, quantitative easing, inflation management through “forward guidance” and the story of the Bank’s nationalisation in 1946.7 Of the latter, when the Bank was founded in 1694 as a chartered joint-stock company8, its reserves were based upon a loan made by private investors, meaning until the end of the Second World War, the UK’s government bank was in fact privately owned and established by a national debt that has never been repaid.

In an article for The Guardian last year, the anthropologist and Occupy activist David Graeber disclosed the truth about money creation: it is an IOU, a debt that engenders money as a deposit and not the other way round. He writes: ’When banks make loans, they create money. This is because money is really just an IOU … So for the banking system as a whole, every loan just becomes another deposit … What this means is that the real limit on the amount of money in circulation is not how much the central bank is willing to lend, but how much government, firms, and ordinary citizens, are willing to borrow.”9 And although this acknowledgement of money as the product of debt itself is not unknown, it underlines the operative (real) abstraction at the heart of society, the abstraction that is money, financial speculation and finally the abstraction that is the class relation and the value form of labour it reproduces.

As a consequence of the financial crisis of 2008, two official bodies were created by the Bank to provide a safety net for future risk and the overseeing of the financial system in general: the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Policy Committee, respectively, which are both accountable to Parliament as well as the Financial Conduct Authority, which is autonomous.

All quotes and data derive from the Bank of England Museum (BEM) displays and website

http: // www.bankofengland.co.uk.

Ibid.

See: Sir John Soane Museum, http: // www.soane.org

BEM, op. cit.

Before the renovation, one could enter the basket of a hot air balloon to play a game with the laws of inflation.

This history, however, does not include how money itself was accumulated through geo-political expansionism and imperialism.

BEM, op. cit.

See: David Graeber, “The truth is out: money is just an IOU, and the banks are rolling in it,” The Guardian, 18 March 2014.

Starship 13: Geld Alkohol Feminismus Sex - Cover Monika Baer
  1. Cover Monika Baer
  2. Editorial Starship 13 Martin Ebner, Ariane Müller, Nikola Dietrich, Henrik Olesen
  3. Greer Lankton Greer Lankton
  4. New New Impressions of Africa Jakob Kolding
  5. Contents
  6. Lost in numbers Karl Holmqvist
  7. Interview with Robert Bittenbender Robert Bittenbender, Robert McKenzie
  8. Das Lamas-Haus Florian Zeyfang, Lisa Schmidt-Colinet, Alexander Schmoeger
  9. Clouds Stephanie Wurster, Vera Tollmann
  10. Das Licht ist so hell Hans-Christian Dany
  11. Mollicutes Tenzing Barshee
  12. Crumbs Gerry Bibby
  13. Petting Zoo Francesca Drechsler
  14. Lee Miller Ariane Müller
  15. Dull and Bathos Jay Chung
  16. Liotard Christopher Müller
  17. Littoral Madness Chris Kraus
  18. aus: Am kühlen Tisch Amelie von Wulffen
  19. Visiting Highgate Cemetery Mercedes Bunz
  20. sub rosa Scott C. Weaver
  21. Institute of Flexibility Marte Eknæs
  22. The Bank of England Museum David Bussel
  23. Die kleinste Einheit (eine verrufene Münze kursiert geheim) Ulla Rossek
  24. Circles Drawn in Water: Play in the Major Key Lars Bang Larsen
  25. Orgy Marte Eknæs, Nicolau Vergueiro
  26. Circle, Senki, Mingei, Starnet Richard Birkett
  27. Untitled (F.P. #2, H.B.—  part 1 & part 2, Q.B. #2, Q.B. #1) Liz Deschenes
  28. 3 bad habits Monika Baer
  29. Moneydreams Rainer Ganahl
  30. Mathieu Malouf Mathieu Malouf
  31. Hallo, Dr. Fanta Max Schmidtlein
  32. Arts & Foods Amy Lien, Enzo Camacho, Ilya Lipkin
  33. Die Morschen Monika Rinck
  34. 1976, 1983, 2015 Julie Ault, Lucy R. Lippard
  35. what am i doing here David Antin
  36. 1. Get on board! Peter Wächtler
  37. Vacation Tobias Spichtig
  38. if you did, do we share something now? Lou Cantor
  39. Marinoni Tennis Club Ariane Müller, Martin Ebner
  40. Valparaiso Martin Ebner
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