London's New Insurance Museum Launches Debut Exhibition

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By M@
London's New Insurance Museum Launches Debut Exhibition
Painting of a fire raging over 17th century London
It all began with the Great Fire of 1666, against which nobody was insured. Image: public domain

Insurance is incredibly interesting. No, really. Don't take our word for it — head on over to the new Insurance Museum.

"Did you know the first fire brigades were developed and managed by the early insurance companies, after the Great Fire of London?"

So asks Howard Benge, director of the Insurance Museum. This brand new educational resource takes a deep dive into a sector that many of us take for granted, or even begrudge. "Insurance underpins almost everything we do, says Benge. "[It] allows us to do many things, such as driving a car or travelling on a train, and has done for centuries."

It also has a multifaceted history with many surprises — stories the museum will tell through exhibitions and events. The museum is virtual for the time being, but is building support to open as a physical venue in London.

No insurance, no fire brigade

Three fire plaques The first is a red shield with the word Royal in gold. The second bell shaped. The third is like a five-petalled flower with the word Lancashire in gold
Examples of fire plaques, placed on buildings to show that insurance had been secured. Image by Matt Brown

The museum's debut exhibition is called Fire! Risk and Revelation. The first section, called Rising From the Ashes, examines the birth of fire insurance in London. It all began with the Great Fire of 1666, against which nobody was insured. In its aftermath, companies were set up to respond quickly to fires in return for regular downpayment — in other words, insurance.

The exhibition uses video, photos and maps to tell the story of the fire and the industry it kickstarted. Exhibits include the fire marks that insurance companies placed on buildings to show that the property was covered (many can still be seen around town). You can learn about the fire hooks and leather buckets used by the insurance company fire brigades to put out fires. The exhibition also includes a very early insurance policy document signed by notorious property developer and insurance pioneer Nicholas Barbon. A house to the south of the Barbican was the first home known to have fire insurance.

A portrait of a 17th century gentleman in a flowing brown wig and with piercing, unimpressed blue eyes
Dr Nicholas Barbon. Image courtesy of the Insurance Museum.

It's a compact and well-presented exhibition and takes about 30 minutes to view in total. A second 'gallery' covering the rise of fire-fighting brigades from 1696 to 1760 will go live in October, with two further instalments at monthly intervals.

From the virtual to the physical

For now, the Insurance Museum is a virtual experience. But plans have long been afoot to establish a physical presence in London. "Just before the pandemic, the Insurance Museum had identified a building in EC3," explains Benge. "We had the keys to the building, were showing supporters and potential funders around, but hadn't signed the lease. Just as well we hadn't, as the pandemic hit and we would have been left with an empty building, no visitors and a huge rent bill on our hands." (We can only imagine the irony of the Insurance Museum having to argue the case with its own insurance company.)

The museum continues its fundraising efforts, working towards the goal of first trialing a pop-up museum, and then opening a permanent venue.

Why an insurance museum?

A low-res screengrab showing a half-heartedly wigged gentleman in a red coat being interviewed by a lady in a stripy tshirt.
Screenshot from a video in which "Dr Barbon" is interviewed about his insurance schemes.

The museum was the brainchild of Reg Brown, a respected veteran of the insurance industry who now chairs the museum.

He first came up with the idea when the Chartered Insurance Institute announced the sale of its Aldermanbury headquarters. Its new home would lack space for its collection of heritage items. Inspired by the Bank of England Museum, Reg said immediately: "Open an insurance museum!" While a physical museum is still an aspiration, the virtual version is now live and beginning to show off the treasures of the trade.

The museum also hopes that its debut exhibition will encourage more young people to go into insurance. "We are all well aware of the difficulty employers are experiencing in their efforts to attract talent to our profession," says Reg Brown. "It’s been a constant theme throughout my career. I sincerely hope that Fire! Risk and Revelations will be the start of our efforts to do something about that.”

Into the future

The silvery facade of Lloyds of London
Lloyds of London. Image by Matt Brown

The museum will put on further exhibitions in the months and years ahead. There's much to cover. As well as bringing stability and security to our modern lives (travel insurance, home insurance, life insurance, etc. etc.) the industry played a formidable role in shaping our society. "If it wasn’t for insurance, support for entrepreneurs and innovators would not be there, and the industrial revolution would not have happened in the way it did," says Benge.

Imports, exports and global trade would have been imperilled without the insurance provided by Lloyd's of London. That world-famous institution began life in a coffee shop — another compelling tale to be told. There's a darker side, too. Companies including Lloyds played an enabling role in the Transatlantic slave trade — a link that will be explored in future exhibitions.

The insurance industry will only become more important as we move deeper into the climate emergency. New roles for insurance emerge all the time, as society and technology evolve. "All of this we want to look at, and over time we will be telling these stories, through online exhibitions, events and a physical museum," promises Benge. "Fire! Risk and Revelation is just the beginning."

Fire! Risk and Revelation at the Insurance Museum is live now, and free to view. If you'd like to support the museum and help it fundraise towards a physical venue, they'd be delighted to accept your help here.

Last Updated 12 September 2022