Saturday, August 13, 2005

There be Gold in them there Museums

Earlier in the week I had a day off, so I headed into the City in order to visit the Bank of England’s museum, which is tucked away on Bartholomew Lane off Threadneedle Street with little to no fanfare. The Bank itself moved to this location in 1734, having previously existed on a site above the Roman Temple of Mithras (who coincidentally, or perhaps not, was the god of contracts) at nearby Walbrook since its establishment in 1694 when it came to the rescue of the monarchy when public funds were in a pitiful state.

The impressively tall windowless wall which skirts the exterior of the building is all that remains of Sir John Soane's time as ‘The Old Lady’s’ head Architect and Surveyor, a role he fulfilled for some 45 years and described as “the pride and boast of my life”. The building that stands behind it was designed by Herbert Baker and built inbetween the two World Wars as the bank was in desperate need of new space, but it was decided that Soane's wall was nigh on impossible to improve upon, either aesthetically or security-wise.

The Bank of England, behind which looms the now largely redundant London Stock Exchange building and Tower 42 (or, if you prefer, The Natwest Tower). It is said that The Old Lady has more storage space below ground than is contained in the whole of the Tower 42 building. I don’t know if I believe it though.

The museum itself was, it gives me no pleasure to announce, a real let-down. Attempting to be interactive, it had littered itself with video displays, showing the sort of tosh you saw in science lessons at school, where dreadful actors don wigs and adopt terribly pompous accents whilst grating classical music pumps out (because, you know, that’s what C16th England sounded like), and which try a little to hard to convince you that no, interest rates and the Consumer Price Index aren’t boring, they are really important and relevant to everyday life.

I whisked round the displays until I finally reached the part I (and I suspect most visitors) had most wanted to see: the gold bars and, most importantly, the chance to lift one. I was a little disappointed to see that the sole bar which us plebs were allowed to get our grubby mitts on was safely stored in a clear case, into which you inserted your hand via a small hole. Upon reflection, this is a fair enough security precaution, but I, perhaps rather naively, had supposed I was going to get to walk into some vast safe where the gold stood freely and where I could frolic in its midst. What I also hadn’t been expecting - and again, perhaps rather naively - was just how bloody heavy gold is. The sheer weight of the bar together with the angle of my arm in the box meant that it would require a significant amount of effort to budge it, and I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t rip all the tendons in my arm in doing so. Realising I was being scrutinised by the gold bar’s guard and a couple of tourists, I decided it was best that I abandoned my plan to raise the gold aloft, and tried to change the look on my face and my body’s stance from a “Grrrr!!!! Raaaah! I’m… Gonna… Lift…. Arrrgh! This…. Fucker…!” one to a “Hmmm, yes, I think I have the feel for this gold bar and indeed it is fairly heavy, enough so for me to furrow my brow, but I never intended to try anything as uncouth as lifting it” one. The pulsating vein that was throbbing on my temple may have betrayed my initial intention though. What I really was thinking at the time though was that, at the time valued at £97,000, this was perhaps the most expensive chunk of metal ever to have graced my palm, and also how unbelievably (to an almost unreal degree) shiny the stuff is.

4 comments:

Claire said...

I think the gold bar would have been all I'd gone there for too! The outside of the building is lovely architecturally but otherwise it just doesn't appeal to me to wander around learning about economics...nope not one iota!

OldHorsetailSnake said...

And something else: Gold is now pretty much worthless since they don't put it on your teeth anymore. It works good with electricity, but that's about it.

Monica said...

Die Hard III taught me numerous lessons, one of the most important being: gold is extremely heavy.

Curly said...

Isn't it a shame that so may museums are living up to their 'boring' reputations?

I can picture the 'Gold Guard' right now, watching the bar like a hawk, never blinking incase someone should attempt to steal the gold from under his nose.