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Valuable exchanges

Chris Fautley visits the City and gets his hands on the riches of both the Bank of England and BT museums.

John Keyworth, curator at the Bank of England Museum, says he is never happier than when he has groups of children in the museum. The aim, he says, is to educate them about the Bank and how it works, but within the context of its history.

If the fact that you can get in to the Bank of England at all comes as a surprise, then its museum is nothing short of a revelation. What makes it so outstanding is the way an attention-grabbing exhibition has been created out of something as mundane as . . . money. It might once have been a taboo subject, but be assured, it can't ever have been here.

Student presentations are all strong on audience participation. They can be tailored to age groups and range from slide shows to "question and answer" sessions. Pupils aged five to l0, for example, are catered for by a cartoon film and a "dress up and barter" game, followed by the opportunity to handle items such as an imitation gold bar.

A presentation geared for 11 to 14-year-olds includes slides as well as the cartoon, while also examining issues such as credit creation, inflation and the qualities of money.

The museum is a "find out for yourself" sort of place, and quiz sheets encourage pupils to do just that. Look out for the Bank's charter from 1694, with the register of original Bank stock subscribers from the same year.

Few pupils will fail to be awestruck by the display of gold, especially the pile of 59 gold ingots - at least until they discover they are not real. Any disappointment, though, is temporary since there are two genuine ones on show, each worth about Pounds 90,000. These are accompanied by a Roman ingot and the Coronation Gold Bar - the purest gold in the world presented by the Queen to Westminster Abbey upon her coronation.

Where else would you find the world's finest collection of Bank of England notes, including forgeries? There is even a real l9th-century million pound note.

To say there is a surprise round every corner is an understatement. Don't miss the re-created 18th-Century banking hall, letters from Nelson and the children of George V, a dividend mandate signed by George and Martha Washington, printing cylinders, 18th-century lottery tickets, and a collection of truncheons, muskets and other weapons used to defend the Bank. Most intriguing of all are two sealed packets from 1780 said to contain duplicate keys to the doors of the bullion office of the day. But as they are sealed, nobody knows.

Interactive videos and hands-on simulations are dotted around the building. They have a knack of making even seemingly tedious subjects fascinating - even "financial regulation".

Budding tycoons can try their hand at a foreign exchange simulation which produces a printout to show how well they have done, or at a dealing desk with television screens and a recorded telephone commentary.

The BT Museum brings us face to face with something much more familiar. Split into two levels, the first shows the "Story of Telecommunications".

This covers everything from early telegraphs, including an example of the first patented telegraph from 1837, right up to digital and fibre optic technology. It's another good place for "hands-on" experience with an abundance of buttons to press and gadgets to try.

Pupils can make telephone calls and send faxes to each other within the museum, and by prior arrangement BT will arrange a "Go Global" session. This enables students to interact, via fax, with school groups at telecom museums in France, Sweden and Norway. This is free.

There is a small video theatre. Question and answer sheets are also supplied.

Among the more fascinating exhibits are old telephone boxes, including one from 1911, "Bell" hand telephones from 1877 and a London telephone directory from 1880 - no bigger than a slim-line diary. Compare this with the nationwide CD Directory, which you can try for yourself.

An interactive video in which you are a journalist trying to file a report "against the computer" via sub-marine lines, land lines and satellite from Canada to London, is especially good. On a more basic level, experiment with a Morse telegraph.

On the lower floor there are larger exhibits, including part of an old telephone exchange, with wires, plugs and flashing lights. The museum staff even help you unravel the wires when, inevitably, you get your lines crossed.

And the most unusual exhibit? Probably the mock-up of an open telephone manhole, with red and white striped awning. If you've ever wondered what goes on down there, here is the place to find out.

The Education Group, The Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane, London EC2R 8AH. Tel: 0171 601 3985 * The BT Museum, 145 Queen Victoria Street, London EC4V 4AT. Tel: 0171 248 7444

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