Museum duo seek to ‘sell’ insurance from Titanic to Mesopotamia

“Hey kids, let’s go to the insurance museum!”

It might not sound like the most promising day out, but two people are determined to convince the masses that they want to spend time getting to know the ins and outs of insurance.

Industry veteran Reg Brown and brand consultant Jonathan Squirrell are trying to set up an insurance museum in the City of London, arguing that it would do wonders for the sector’s reputation.

“We need to tell [people] how widespread the insurance business is,” said Mr Brown, a 77-year old who spent decades working at Lloyd’s of London and was also president of the Chartered Institute of Insurance. “It’s not just singing waiters and car insurance and household insurance, which is what they see on the television adverts . . . We want to tell them it’s a lot more than that.”

Mr Squirrell is project manager for the scheme. He has no background in insurance, but became involved after proposing to the CII that it should make a documentary to showcase the industry’s skills.

08/01/2020 Reg Brown, Chair of the Insurance Museum initiative and Jonathan Squirrell (left)
Reg Brown, chair of the Insurance Museum initiative and Jonathan Squirrell (left) © Charlie Bibby/FT

The museum idea was born out of a mixture of jealousy, a practical problem and a desire to improve the sector’s image.

Not for the first time, the insurance industry was jealous of the profile awarded to banks. In this case they noted with envy the success of the Bank of England’s museum, which gets around 100,000 visitors each year.

Mr Brown is a regular visitor. “I keep coming out and thinking, well, we’re as important to the City as the bankers are, why haven’t we got our own? We could tell lots of stories.”

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There was also a more mundane problem to address. The Chartered Insurance Institute moved out of its historic building in Aldermanbury to smaller premises in Lombard Street, and needed somewhere to display the artefacts it had amassed over the past 100 years or so.

More broadly, there was a desire to improve people’s understanding of the sector.

“One of the things that the life insurance companies are terribly interested in is to make sure that financial literacy of children includes the importance of saving for their own pensions, for example,” said Mr Brown.

He is hopeful that the museum will also convince more people to work in the industry.

“HR people are always moaning how difficult it is to recruit quality staff to work in insurance,” he said.

The organisers have not fixed on a firm name for the attraction yet. Insurance Museum is a working title. The Museum of Risk is another possibility.

There is no shortage of material. The idea of insurance and risk management goes back thousands of years to Mesopotamia and China, and London has been one of the centres of the industry since policies were first discussed at Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in the 1680s.

MP963B 1798 --- <Lloyd's Coffee House, London> by William Holland --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS . Francais : Edward Lloyd's Coffee house, a Londres, par William Holland (1789)[1]. Commerce de cafe ou le journal anglais Lloyd's List fut a l'origine publie au 18e siecle. 25 November 2013, 03:59:35. William Holland (1789) 815 Lloyds-coffee-house-london-by-william-holland
© The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

Artefacts that could go on display range from the Titanic’s insurance policy to fire engines and fire marks — plaques that were placed outside buildings hundreds of years ago to tell the (insurance company owned) fire brigades which fires to put out.

Mr Squirrell also insists that there should be some sort of marquee attraction to pull the punters in. The Bank of England’s museum has gold bars. For the insurance museum, that could be a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, which could be used to illustrate how insurers deal with the risks of space flight. He also wants some of the other staples of modern museums — digital games, videos and the like to keep people amused.

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The idea has plenty of backers in the insurance sector.

“I’m very supportive of it as a way to build knowledge of the industry,” said Bronek Masojada, chief executive of Hiscox, the insurance company. “In terms of making things visible, I think it’s quite good fun.”

Insurance museum. Fire plaques or Marks of various private fire brigades from the 1800's.
Insurance museum. Fire plaques or Marks of various private fire brigades from the 1800’s. © Charlie Bibby/FT

Hiscox is one of the companies that has put money in to get the idea to the next stage of development. Beazley, Aviva, Aon, Axa and Swiss Re have also chipped in.

The organisers are trying to raise £3m with the intention of opening a small “pop-up” museum somewhere in EC3 — the part of London that houses the insurance industry — potentially later this year.

The pop-up will be used to test exhibits, ideas and visitor appetite. If all goes well, it would be the precursor to a much bigger project — a £10.5m scheme to set up a permanent, 20,000 sq ft museum in the City of London.

“The world-class visitor venue is the ultimate goal,” said Mr Squirrell.

		Objects relating to insurance on display at the Chartered Insurance Institute in the City today. 
		To go with insurance museum story.
		Photographed are fire helmets and buckets and fire plaques of various private fire brigades from the 1800's. The Institute did not have the specific details for each piece as they don't have an archivist.
© Charlie Bibby/FT

There are already insurance museums in Milan and Madrid, and another opened last year in the city of Ningbo in China.

But Alistair Brown, policy manager at the Museums Association, said that the London project would have to work hard. “On the face of it, it’s not the most thrilling subject but there are all sorts of museums across the UK covering niches from witchcraft to lawnmowers.”

He added that the insurance museum had “a tricky marketing job, but I’m sure there’s a story worth telling.”

The museum’s Reg Brown admits that getting people to visit will not necessarily be easy. “We’ve got to break down that barrier,” he said.

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