Tuesday 22 March 2011

London Foundling Hospital Museum

My first clue that I was not going to be very impressed by the London Foundling Hospital Museum should have been when I googled it. The official hit which it comes up with is ‘The Foundling Museum-London’s first ever public art gallery.’ The tagline on the homepage is ‘Britain’s original home for abandoned children and London’s first ever art gallery,’ which really should have been another clue. Because, to be frank, the fact that the museum was the Foundling Hospital seems to be an afterthought to all the art.

Before I get into all the reasons why the museum was disappointing, I will first give a bit of background on the hospital for those who don’t know it to set the scene. The hospital was originally founded in 1739 by the famous British philanthropist Thomas Coram, who began it in order to care for the growing number of unwanted children who would otherwise die of abandonment or worse in the streets. The idea was to take these unwanted children and make productive members of society of them. At first all children presented at the hospital were taken in, but soon demand well exceeded room, and rules were put in place for the abandonment of the children there. Admittance got so competitive that at one point balls were drawn from a bag to determine if a child was to get in or not.
Upon admittance, the mother would leave some scrap of fabric with the child so as to aid in the reclaiming of it should the parent’s circumstances improve. The babies were then given over to wet nurses until they were weaned and brought back to the hospital to be educated, and then, eventually, apprenticed out (usually as domestic servants). The unfortunate side of this is that a horrific number of the children died shortly after they were admitted, or before they reached maturity.
As the hospital was begun amid an atmosphere of philanthropic works, many flocked to the cause, including major artists and musicians of the time, Hogarth and Handel being two of the most famous patrons. And this is where the problems for the museum comes in, as yes, the art was an important part of the hospital as it gained them patronage, but it was hardly the central point-which is sadly what the museum today misses.
Now, having taken the special subject of ‘Gin Lane to Westminster: Culture, Politics, and Society in Eighteenth Century Britain,’ and since my dissertation concerns gin drinking in both the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Foundling Hospital greatly interests me. So when a group of my history friends decided to take a day trip down to London to visit some museums, I was thrilled that we would be going to it. Obviously, though, I should have paid better attention to their website when I went to it for directions.
From the outside, the building is beautifully kept up, or course, but there still is this sense of foreboding as you look up at it. As corny and cliché as this is going to sound, you really can imagine what it would have been like for the desperate women who were bringing their children to it, as they looked up. Although pretty, it is by no means a welcoming building.
The main exhibit on at the moment, which receives all the publicity, is the ‘Threads of Feeling’ one-and it also happens to be the only really interesting and relevant part of the museum. It is based around the mountain of textile evidence the museum has from the calling pieces that mothers left with the children. The displays show some of the countless record books of admissions, open to pages showing examples not only of the fabric left by mothers, but by their notes as well. It is incredibly heart wrenching stuff, as a number of the children, whose mother took such great care in writing their desired names and that they will be back for them, actually died not soon after.
As poignant as the subject matter is, the exhibit itself is crammed into a back room in the basement, which is far too small for it. Possibly because of this, or just poor planning, the layout is quite confusing. The displays are well done, but are too large for the small space, making walking in between them cramped and awkward when there are other people around. I personally found it incredibly difficult to concentrate on what I was seeing while people continually kept bumping into me as they walked around-and I think at most there were ten people in the room at the time! I seriously think that the room couldn’t have been much larger than the one where we hold the History Labs.
Like I said, that part was in the basement, which has a nice coloring area for children next to it, where you are supposed to draw a self-portrait for the staff to put up (for some unknown reason). On the ground floor, there is a slightly bigger room that somewhat gives the history of the museum, but is more interested in modern day orphans than the foundlings. Although they did have a copy of Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ print, so I was happy to see that. But that is the last of the Hospital and its history that we hear.
The rest of the museum seriously is just an art gallery, save for one music room on the top floor where you can listen to Handel. I of course understand the importance of the arts to the Hospital, and how integral it was. But at the same time, two small and crammed rooms dedicated to the Hospital itself was extremely disappointing. Had I not known anything about the Hospital previously, I would’ve have been able to learn very little from the museum itself outside of the fabrics, and how it was founded. But beyond that, one would think it was simply an art gallery, and not a foundling hospital. There are far too many ways in which they could improve the museum, but making it more of a museum rather than a gallery would be a major start. Or having at least one of the rooms set up, as it would have been at the time would be nice.
Going to the museum, I had such high hopes for it, and was incredibly disappointed-especially as it cost a fiver to get in for two hours! I suppose I simply expected a museum, not a gallery. Don’t get me wrong, the paintings were beautiful, but less of a handful of them even had anything to do with the Hospital. Although art was a very important part of the hospital’s history, I feel that the curators missed the mark in their concept of the museum by focusing almost solely on that aspect, rather than the whole picture.
In other words, I wouldn’t recommend it.