Having worked in the heritage and museums sector for over ten years, I was interested to learn of the efforts being made to establish a ‘museum of insurance’. The initiative, led by former Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) President Reg Brown, aims to create a dedicated insurance museum that would bring together a large collection of artefacts owned by the CII, alongside loans or donations of items from some of the UK’s leading insurers.
An insurance museum might not boast dinosaurs or mummies, but just because a collection is not crowd-pleasing or ‘glamorous’ does not mean that it is not worthy of exhibition and preservation. The UK’s industrial heritage sector, where my background lies, seemed similarly unglamorous. In the 1970s and 1980s, people scoffed at the idea that old collieries, ironworks and related artefacts could be reborn as museum exhibitions and heritage attractions, but it was done with great success, helping regenerate local communities in the process.
The UK has a proud and illustrious history of business and industry. Its insurance sector is one of the oldest and most significant in the world, with the evolution of the principles of insurance from the 17th and 18th centuries influencing how insurance is conducted across the globe. It helped change the way people managed risk, facilitated international trade and helped businesses flourish.
As such, it is fitting that an industry of such significance should have its own museum to safeguard its heritage for the benefit of future generations. The establishment of an accredited museum that meets and adheres to professional standards of collections management, curatorship, conservation, display and interpretation would be the most appropriate vehicle for preserving, transmitting and presenting the heritage of the UK insurance industry. Remember, once heritage is lost, it’s gone forever.
The primary role of a museum is to preserve artefacts, but a key part of any museum’s sustainability strategy is to attract the interest of visitors and capture their imaginations. Insurance may seem like a dry subject to many, but it is something that affects all our lives in some way. Throughout modern history, insurance policies, or an absence thereof, has had a profound impact on the fortunes of businesses, families and individuals. The industry has a huge amount of social history and stories that can help bring the subject to life.
Objects, artefacts and memorabilia can tell great and illuminating stories. Among the collections I have curated and interpreted, one of my favourites related to the friendly societies and benefit clubs that operated in south Wales mining towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These provided insurance and social activities to their members in the era before the Welfare State. This collection, consisting of inscribed objects, books, uniforms, certificates and regalia, was of low financial value but the history and intangible values behind them were priceless. These items served as reminders of how communities worked together to help each other by contributing to a collective fund to insure themselves and their families against sickness, accidents and death. There were ‘sick and accident clubs’ and ‘orphan and widows funds’, among others, that collected money for those in need. These organisations could mean the difference between life and death for some people, allowing people, in many cases, to avoid absolute destitution and the horrors of the dreaded workhouse.
An insurance museum could interpret stories such as these. Also, it could potentially take a sensitive look at events that illustrate how the insurance industry reacted to high profile tragedies such as the Flixborough (Nypro UK) Explosion (1974), Piper Alpha (1988) and the Manchester Bombing (1996).
There is much scope for the exploration of the ‘people’s history’ behind the industry, including the tale of the evolution of the big insurance companies and the key figures behind them. It could also shed light on the lives of the ordinary people who worked in insurance roles as actuaries, underwriters, loss adjustors etc. or worked within a network of insurance agents, traversing the country selling policies. The nation’s insurance intermediaries and brokerages also form part of this interconnected story.
A museum can also preserve intangible cultural heritage. The changing culture of the financial services sector in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century marks a shift in how the insurance industry is conducted. The rise in professional standards, regulation, the increased focus on diversity and inclusion, and initiatives such as ‘Treating Customers Fairly’ and the Senior Managers and Certification Regime (SM&CR) are helping transform the industry. Previous ways of doing things are dying out. Whilst, in many respects, this is a positive thing, a part of the cultural heritage of the industry is nevertheless being lost. Oral history, gathering and storing the testimonies of those who have worked within the sector, could be a great way of capturing the changes experienced in the industry within living memory.
A museum should educate and inspire. There is much potential for exciting interpretation and visitor experiences. Ideas that have been suggested include an historical fire truck, an ‘earthquake zone’ and even a traditional coffee house, recalling the caffeine-fuelled origins of the insurance industry. An insurance museum, with appropriate and engaging interpretation may help people better understand the industry, its history, what it means today and where it is heading. If it succeeds, it may inspire the next generation to seek employment and careers within the insurance sector.
There is clearly much potential for an insurance museum but, to come to fruition, it will likely need the support and funding of the insurance market itself. This is to be encouraged. The heritage of the UK insurance industry is one to be proud of and celebrated.
An event will be held at the Broker’s Wine Bar, 9 Leadenhall Market in the City of London, on Tuesday 23 July 2019, 5:30pm to 7:30pm where the project will be discussed in more detail. The evening will include a talk by social historian and author Dr Matthew Green. There is limited capacity so anyone wishing to attend is requested to email firstname.lastname@example.org to book a place.
For more information, please visit the Insurance Museum website where you can sign up to the newsletter and pledge your support.