Terry Grimley looks at exhibition exploring the often-overlooked art of the banknote.
Coin galleries are an established feature of museums, and help to trace the history of societies and design far back into antiquity, yet the much more recent history of the banknote seems far less familiar.
Nevertheless the British Museum does collect banknotes, and a small selection of them, reflecting the lost history of Britain's regional banks, has just gone on display at Birmingham's Barber Institute.
The exhibition, the second collaboration with the department of coins and medals at the British Museum, is called Changing Landscapes: the Industrial Revolution and the British Banknote, and reflects 19th century Britain undergoing a period of unprecedented change as the shift in the economy from agriculture to industry began to gather momentum.
"It's all about changes in economy, politics, society and aesthetics, and we're starting with Birmingham because I wanted to offer Midlands audiences something completely different to the last exhibition," says Eurydice Georganteli, keeper of the Barber's coin collection.
"As the exhibition opens in Birmingham it's only fair to highlight the inventiveness and optimism of people living in the Midlands at that time. We are displaying banknotes and coins from the 19th century to reflect what I think was a very exciting period. It shows the changing face of Britain in the 19th century following the rise of manufacturing cities like Birmingham and Manchester, and the development of the stock exchange and international trade."
As she points out, the design of banknotes reflects this change. Those issued by banks in agricultural areas tend to celebrate the continuing rural idyll of the English countryside, while those in the new manufacturing areas celebrate industry, its products and achievements.
It was an era of youthful and unregulated capitalism, potentially perilous for investors or even those who simply entrusted their money to a bank, which has found a distant echo in the recent saga of the Newcastle-based Northern Rock. But it was also an era of civic improvement and charitable works.
The banknotes in the exhibition come from a wide variety of locations, including North Cornwall, Swindon and Aberystwyth, as well as Wolverhampton.
But much of the material displayed alongside them relates to Birmingham, including an original piece of apparatus made by James Watt (lent by London's Science Museum) and Benjamin Northwood's glass copy of the Elgin Vase from 1873, made in Stourbridge and once described as the most important piece of cameo glass made since antiquity. There are even some early chocolate boxes on loan from the Cadbury collection.
"It shows the overall changing face of British civic pride and national identity," says Dr Georganteli. "It's important in the time of the so-called global economy, where banks merge more and more, to understand the purpose of money design.
"You can see that the money design of the 19th century sends out so many messages. People were focused on communal responsibility, institutions and so on. Today we have some questions about what makes you a good citizen, and people can relate to this type of display, and of course not least in Birmingham. I don't think we have made enough of what we are, what we can achieve.
"If people in the 19th century were able to change, to found hospitals and charitable foundations and we have medals struck in support of the anti-slavery movement we can draw some good examples from them and move forward."
Changing Landscapes: The Industrial Revolution and the British Banknote is at the Barber Institute, University of Birmingham, until March 6, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm