Beginning the exhibition: Slavery & the Bank

Read about the beginnings of our exhibition, Slavery & the Bank
Published on 29 April 2022


Jennifer Adam, Curator

This month, two years since we closed for the first lockdown, we reopened the doors of the Bank of England Museum. The whole team has been working hard behind the scenes. We’ve made a lot of changes, including a full refreshment of the Modern Economy Gallery, which looks at the role and work of the Bank of England today. But we also open with a new exhibition and interventions throughout the whole of the Museum: Slavery & the Bank. The exhibition explores the links between the history of the Bank of England, the City of London, and transatlantic slavery. 

The exhibition has been taking shape since 2020, though the research began some time before. There is a strong movement in the museum world towards an anticolonial approach to collections and exhibitions. This doesn’t only mean repatriating contested artefacts, or removing statues, but examining the stories that we tell and the power structures they reflect. Do the monuments and narratives in our public spaces celebrate people and power structures that reflect today’s values, our values? And if not, what do we do about that?

For our museum, this means acknowledging that the Bank of England was founded and came to prominence at a time when London was becoming the centre of a global empire, and Britain was at the forefront of the transatlantic slave trade. Several of the Bank’s founding figures were involved in the trading of enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and America - some directly, and others through their banking and finance businesses. As an institution, there wasn’t a clear picture of the extent of these historical connections.

Around 2018, we began research into our collections to see what relevant material we had and how we could include it in exhibitions.

The work gained momentum in early 2020 when a small number of colleagues in the Bank of England Ethnic Minority Network began an internal project to highlight the Bank’s links to transatlantic slavery. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 then showed unmistakably the public desire for institutions to be open about their history and connections with slavery and colonialism. As public attention turned to the question of who we commemorate in our public spaces, we began to look more closely at the figures on our own walls.

When it was founded in 1694, the Bank of England was a private bank that provided financial services to individuals, other companies and the Government. Many City merchants and financiers would invest profits from riskier trade ventures into Bank of England stock, which was a safer investment. A significant enough investment in Bank stock qualified the holder for election as a Director or Governor. As a result, these offices were held by wealthy and successful businessmen, many with commercial interests in slavery.

As a result of this initial research we moved ten items from display around the Bank into our museum stores, where they will be kept safely. Four are featured in the exhibition, Slavery & the Bank. We began planning for this exhibition in earnest in autumn 2020, and in 2021 two academic specialists joined the Museum team for the project. Dr Michael Bennett, a specialist in the history of early modern Britain and Caribbean slavery, led the research that underpins the exhibition. And Liberty Paterson, whose PhD research looks at the cultural legacies of slavery at the National Portrait Gallery, London, was brought in to co-curate the exhibition and assist with research.

The resulting exhibition examines the different ways that individuals were involved, from owning plantations to trading in products produced by enslaved people. It also looks at the Bank’s place in the wider financial system at a time where enslavement was considered a legitimate trade, to the extent that people were treated as a form of property that could be used as collateral for a loan. Exhibition research uncovered documents relating to the Bank’s ownership of two plantations in Grenada in the late 1700s. The Bank came into possession of the plantations, and the enslaved Africans who worked there, after they were put up as security for a loan that defaulted.

Visit our exhibition to see the full story, or explore objects and stories from the exhibition on Google Arts & Culture. Slavery & the Bank tells the story within the Bank for the first time and we hope this will shed light on a notable part of the Bank’s history. But as with any research there are many further questions to look into – and we hope that this is just the beginning for future research.