Making a home for the story of insurance
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Making a home for the story of insurance

Watermen graphic.png
Illustration, courtesy Ron Long, shows watermen vying for business with a customer. The first insurance firefighters (made up of watermen) were set up in 1680 by Barbon’s Fire Office, one of London’s first insurance companies. The watermen wore an identifying numbered arm badge. They were easy to find, as they were registered to ply their trade on both banks of the River Thames. In 1796 there were about 12,000 watermen in London.

The London Insurance Museum’s online galleries are open to visitors and a bricks & mortar pop-up is in planning. But museum chairman Reg Brown says that this is just the beginning.

Did you know that early insurance companies in UK cities used beer tokens to recruit members of the public to help put out large fires?

Up to 400 people could be required for a major blaze and pumpers would chant “Beer-Oh” in anticipation of the token they would receive for every shift completed. These could be exchanged later for ale at a local tavern or redeemed for cash when presented to the insurer, or fire office as they were then called.

This factoid comes courtesy of London’s virtual Insurance Museum and specifically from its online exhibition, Rising From The Ashes.

More virtual galleries are in the pipeline - Powered by the Industrial Revolution is next – but the long-term goal is to establish a world class visitor and research centre in London, where the museum’s collections can be exhibited.

Here, Insurance Museum chairman and London market grandee Reg Brown tells Insider Engage why a permanent centre is needed in the risk capital of the world.

So why does London and/or the industry need an insurance museum?

The history of insurance is very wide and goes back hundreds of years. It has enabled progress, innovation and allowed individuals, families and societies safety nets, stability and simple activities such as driving and going on holiday. On the whole, the public does not appreciate this and how insurance underpins society.

The Insurance Museum will tell the story of insurance, its history, but also the challenges facing the profession and world in the future.
Reg Brown Insurance Museum Chairman
Reg Brown Insurance Museum.jpg

As well as the public, we aim to engage with schools and young people with an aim to inspire the next generation of insurance professionals.

Why London? It’s the perfect place to do this as there are many tourists in the area, as well as the insurance community. At the same time we want to work with the regional networks and businesses across the country so that we are telling the story of the whole of the UK.

Is there a precedent in any other country?

We’ve counted over 10 insurance museums and museums with insurance collections worldwide. These include the Mansutti Foundation for Insurance History in Milan, the Centre for Corporate History, located in the Allianz site in Munich, and the Insurance Museum in Ningbo, China. There are also museums getting off the ground like us, such as in Mexico City, the director of which came to visit us last year, and we remain in contact with her. There are a few virtual museums as well, one produced by Thomas Kromka in Slovakia and another in Portugal.

What stage are you at with exhibitions and when will a physical presence appear?

The Insurance Museum has launched two virtual galleries now, Rising from the Ashes and Fuelled by Coffee, based on the story of fire insurance. They start with the first companies after the Great Fire of London and go through the 18th century with the plethora of companies that popped up in the numerous coffee shops.

The next gallery, Powered by the Industrial Revolution, will be launched this summer and will look at how fire insurance developed alongside the new technologies and risks the Industrial Revolution brought. The final gallery will be launched in the Autumn.

Our next aim is to establish an IM Mini-Museum in EC3, City of London. This will be a location to start our work engaging with audiences and telling the global story of insurance. We are planning for a shop-sized space where we can run exhibitions over three years, aimed at the public and tourists as well as education programmes for primary and secondary schools. There’ll also be sponsored exhibitions, venue hire and fundraising events.

Having a base will also help us engage with the rest of the UK, through virtual talks, and an outreach programme that will include exhibitions and events.

Above all, we want to engage with our audiences and learn from the experience. We will test these programmes, evaluate their impact and carry out further consultation with users to understand how we can develop the Insurance Museum for our bigger, permanent world class insurance visitor and research centre in EC3.

Is a physical site feasible, given property prices in the City of London?

Despite high property prices in the City of London, there are opportunities to secure a venue for a charity. Recently the Migration Museum secured a premises in the City of London, as part of a new development. This approach is something we are considering for our long term aims, a permanent museum in EC3.

Our mini museum project will require us paying rent on a small premises, but this will only be a sixth of the total project costs, which also include exhibition design, staff and specialist consultants.

Is the Chartered Insurance Institute (the UK industry’s professional body) involved?

The CII has been extremely supportive throughout the development of the Insurance Museum. The Insurance Museum is registered at the CII office in Fenchurch Street, they make their historic collections and archives available for us to use, offer secretarial support and allow us to book their meeting rooms, if they are available. Without their support, we definitely would not be where we are now.

Are you getting the funding support you need so far? What sources of funding do you hope to tap?

The Insurance Museum is a registered charity and has seen wide support from across the insurance profession in our early stages of development, from industry bodies like CII, to insurance companies like Adrian Flux, Hiscox, IGI and Swiss Re. As we move from our virtual stage towards the establishment of our first physical mini museum in EC3 we will need to raise £2m to establish the museum for the first three years. We are working closely with our founding industry sponsors, the City of London and many others to raise the funds needed.