Bubbles and bankruptcy: Financial crises in Britain
29 November 2012 – 5 May 2013 2013 - Free
In 1890 Punch magazine published a cartoon entitled Same Old Game! in which
employees of Barings Bank were depicted as errant schoolboys, having gambled
away the bank’s capital through poor investment decisions. In the image they
are sheepishly asking the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’, an allegory for
the Bank of England, for a bailout. The Old Lady reluctantly agrees, ‘for
this once!!’ Her statement is intentionally ironic - this was not the first
financial crisis to affect Britain and it was certainly not going to be the
This Coins and Medals display Bubbles and Bankruptcy: financial crises in
Britain since 1700, traces the history of financial crisis from the first
stock bubbles of the 18th Century through to the current banking crisis.
Featuring prospectuses and original share certificates for companies that
collapsed, notes from failed banks, and reports about crises. These objects
provide a fascinating insight into how and why crises occur. They
demonstrate that, in a world of uncertainty, even the most reasoned
investment can occasionally fail.
The remainder of the exhibition explores the fertile history of satire and
protest about financial crises, represented by historic prints, contemporary
cartoons, protest badges and modern works of art. From the works of Dickens
to Private Eye magazine, or from the satirical prints of James Gillray to a
2011 cartoon by the artist Steve Bell, there is a remarkable consistency
about the way in which people have, and continue to respond to crisis.
Some of the exhibits provide humour but for unintentional reasons. The
exhibition features, for example, a congratulatory champagne bottle given
out by Northern Rock to its employees in 1997. This was to celebrate the
demutualisation of the building society to become a bank. The bottle
provides an ironic reminder that demutualisation was supposed to enable
Northern Rock to expand its business interests. However, history records
that its investment portfolio would fail within ten years, triggering the
first bank run on a UK bank since 1866.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a contemporary sculpture entitled House
of Cards by Justine Smith, a London-based artist. The artist has stacked
real UK notes instead of the playing cards, symbols of gambling, that
typically make up a house of cards. The artwork neatly symbolises the
sometimes precarious nature of financial speculation.