The Bank of England has shelved a £250,000 plan to revamp its museum, adding at least a year to more than five years of debate about how to provide a focal point for financial education in England and Wales.
As a recently launched parliamentary inquiry into the state of financial education in English schools progresses, the central bank’s move shines a spotlight on the UK’s lowly position in international league tables for the general understanding of financial matters.
The UK is ranked 15th out of 29 countries for financial literacy by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), despite having the largest and most powerful financial services industry in Europe.
The Bank’s latest decision on the path of interest rates, due on Thursday, could send people in the UK scrambling to examine their mortgage rates if policymakers hint at an early move.
Robin Walker, the Tory MP for Worcester and chair of the all-party education committee conducting the inquiry, says the UK needs to use its expertise “to help children and adults better understand money and economics”.
“We should welcome more opportunities for them to understand the role of finance and financial services. Institutions like the Bank of England need to play a part in that education,” he adds.
In the time since officials at the Bank began considering a revamp of the only money museum in England and Wales, a string of museums have opened or been overhauled at a cost of more than £100m.
The Museum of Making in Derby, based in the world’s first fully mechanised factory has opened after an £18m project. The Imperial War Museum in London has undergone a £30.5m refit and the Museum of the Home in east London, has expanded at a cost of £18m.
The Bank’s museum is housed on the ground floor of its grade-I listed building on Threadneedle Street and displays rare coins, cash registers and a collection that includes historically prominent women on banknotes. An exhibition on the City’s links to slavery closes next month.
The museum, which usually attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, will soon host an exhibition on digital payments, asking: “Can the tooth fairy go cashless? Are cryptoassets money?”
The Bank refused to explain the decision to delay a refurbishment that was expected to introduce interactive exhibits to supplement the displays of coins and memorabilia that take up most of the space.
It is understood museum staff have faced constraints that apply to any building with a Grade I-listing – in this case the architect Sir John Soane’s neo-classical fortress that stands opposite the Royal Exchange in the heart of London’s financial district.
Heritage regulations raise the costs of a revamp and limit what staff can do to refresh exhibits dating back to the Bank’s foundation in 1694.
It museum’s only rival in the UK is Edinburgh’s Museum on the Mound, which also examines “the story of money” and has about 50,000 visitors a year. Like its London-based counterpart, it is not an independent institution, after being set up and run by Bank of Scotland, which is now part of Lloyds Banking Group.
To give a comparison, the Science Museum group, which operates London’s Science Museum, the Science and Industry Museum, National Railway Museum, Locomotion, and National Science and Media Museum, expects 5 million visitors in 2026.
Walker’s review is focused on the financial education of school-age children and how teachers can incorporate basic concepts into the maths curriculum.
The Labour party has already pledged to teach more of the maths curriculum through the prism of household budgeting, currency exchange rates for going on holiday, sports league tables and cookery recipes.
The thinktank Centre for Social Justice carried out research in 2022 that found two-thirds of young adults who experienced financial difficulties believed better financial education could have helped them.
The government-funded Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) estimated in 2020 that 4.8 million children had received “a meaningful financial education”. It wants to increase the number to 6.8 million by 2030.
MaPS research found that half of 18- to 24-year-olds report feeling anxious when thinking about their money, while about two-thirds (65%) of the same age group could not add interest earned to a savings balance or understand compound interest. Just over half (55%) of young people aged 16 and 17 are not able to read a payslip correctly.
Sara Weller, the chair of the MaPS, said: “Experts are clear, that children form a view of money before they are seven years old and currently we don’t have a framework for teaching it until secondary school level, when children are already 11 years old.”
However, the plan to expand financial literacy in schools faces an uphill task. A study by the Bank in 2022 found almost two-thirds of teachers felt there was not time or resources to fit the subject into the school year.
The most prominent exhibition in recent years to debate the importance of money was staged last year at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is funded by the University of Cambridge.
Under the title, Defaced! Money, Conflict, Protest, the show focused on money as a medium for protest and dissent and “highlighted the small defacements on coins and notes, which revealed the opinions of people who otherwise went unheard”.
Much of the exhibition is on tour, but not in the UK – it can now be seen at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada.
Dr Richard Kelleher, the exhibition’s curator, says: “There was a noticeable demographic shift in the age of visitors to Defaced! compared with other shows, with the biggest proportion in the 45-54 range and a definite increase in the number of younger people coming to the museum.”
He added: “Part of the appeal of exhibitions about money is their ability to connect with the visitor. For better of worse money is a constant part of our lives and we all have a relationship with cash.
“We covet it, don’t have enough of it, try to hide it, worry about it, try to grow it. For these reasons and others we have a means to connect. Money exhibitions can play a powerful role in developing visitors’ financial literacy; particularly driving a better understanding of the banking system, debt, assets and liabilities, inflation and concepts of value, through creative presentations of the history of money.
Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association, says an independent money museum to house permanent exhibitions could fall foul of a funding crisis that is forcing many museums to consider restricting opening hours or higher charges for special exhibitions. “There is money for capital spending but the cuts to revenue budgets are severe,” she says.
The largest and most advanced money museum in the world is the Interactive Museum of Economics in Mexico City. Funded by the central bank, government departments, big commercial banks and financial institutions, but with an independent charter, it is housed in a refurbished convent in the heart of the city.
Among exhibits of old coins, the museum boasts a trading room with virtual reality headsets that can turn a classroom of children into day traders. There is also a “Future of Money” room that allows visitors see how digital money is created and to experiment with different ways to pay electronically.
There are no proposals to set up an independent economics or money museum in the UK and a revamp of either of the existing museums in London or Edinburgh seems a long way off.