An exhibition has opened that can be looked as either an exhibition worth visiting to learn something, or a chance to go inside a building that has rarely been seen by the general public.

Or maybe both?

The exhibition is tied to a project to raise the profile of Philanthropy within London’s businesses, and also raise the amount offered in philanthropic gestures.

The timing of the move to boost philanthropy in the City is not coincidental. The banks have taken a bit of a battering, and “doing good” is seen as a part of the process of helping to repair that reputation.

However, as the economy recovers, now is a good time to start pushing for more corporate giving, much of which dried up during the banking crisis, less due to a lack of cash than a desire to bunker down and not be too visible.

London has a long heritage of giving and even back in Medieval London it far outshone the other major European capitals for the scale of support offered to the poor. Today, the USA is really seen as the heart-land of charitable giving, so London is trying to regain some of its more recently lost reputation.

Hence, this exhibition which is just part of a much larger project.

And they’ve very cleverly put it inside a building that in of itself is worth visiting.

I wrote about it recently as it happens after I visited on one of their fairly rare public tours — and the location is relevant as it is itself the result of a huge act of philanthropy a touch over 400 years ago.

Of course, the building is The Charterhouse next to Barbican — a walled enclosure rarely penetrated by the causal observer.

Visitors have the delight of going through the ancient gatehouse and into the Elizabethan courtyard, where in the corner next to the Great Hall a doorway is open to let visitors within.

The exhibition is laid out in a few rooms, and is fairly much made up of display boards explaining the history of philanthropy in London — the hospitals, the social housing, the first toilets (yes, really!) and the alms support for the poor.

There are also some whimsical donations, such as the annual dowry given to “three poor, honest, young woman, natives of the City of London, aged 16 to 25 who had recently been or were about to be married.”

Dick Whittington’s own charity still exists to this day — still funding almshouses for the poor and making donations.. It’ll be 600 years old in a decade’s time.

More significantly, the City of London Corporation’s charity, City Bridge Trust funds the maintenance of the river bridges in central London at no cost to the taxpayer. Its assets are now sufficiently large that it started dolling out some of the annual surplus to charity and now hands out around £15 million per year to applicants based in London.

And donations are still flowing – in total more than £2bn of charitable spending was captured by the 2013 Giving List published in April, which ranks philanthropists according to the proportion of their wealth given to charity.

Back to the exhibition itself — within the exhibition, some historic trinkets are on display, including a huge Jewish lottery drum that awarded stipends to the lucky recipients.

But, and a big but, you are inside The Charterhouse, with a remarkable chapel open to visit. Do notice the wooden door on the way in, a remnant left over from war damage. Here is the tomb of the great philanthropist who caused Charterhouse to switch from Monetary to almshouses, and do notice the dogs heads everywhere — of his favourite pet.

The exhibition is open Wed-Sun noon to 5:30pm until the 30th November. Entry is free. There is a rather good history book for sale as well, which should be on any London historian’s bookshelf.

The exhibition was laid out by the Museum of London.

In addition, there will be tours of The Charterhouse every Thursday to Sunday at 3pm, and that is worth the £10 fee as you will see a lot more of the buildings inside this hidden enclave. There is no need to book these in advance, but note that only cash payments will be taken.

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