Above: The Foundling Museum. Image by dvdbramhall is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Earlier this year, I visited the Foundling Museum in London for the first time. The Foundling Museum explores the history of the Foundling Hospital, established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram. The Foundling Hospital was the UK’s first charity for young children at risk of abandonment due to poverty or the social stigma of illegitimacy. The museum is full of intriguing exhibits which offer an insight into life at the Foundling Hospital. After the Foundling Hospital closed in the 1950s, it became the children’s charity Coram which continues to support vulnerable children in the UK.
The best place to start exploring the Foundling Museum is the Introductory Gallery on the ground floor. The displays tell the story of the Founding Hospital from its beginnings in the eighteenth century to the twentieth century. Objects on display include uniforms and admission records, and personal experiences are brought to life through oral history recordings by former children.
However, the objects which stood out the most to me in the Introductory Gallery were the poignant ‘tokens’ on display. These were small, everyday objects left by mothers when admitting their babies to the Hospital. As babies were renamed on arrival, the tokens were used a means of identification in the case of the mother’s return. The mother’s name was not recorded, so she would have to prove that the child was hers by identifying the token. Each admission record was folded up like a letter and sealed shut, so the token had to be small enough to fit inside. The tokens were each unique and included engraved coins, jewellery or embroidery. The tokens are definitely thought-provoking and symbolic of loss and longing. The displayed tokens were never reunited with their owners, so in a way they were also abandoned. These small artefacts are hugely significant in the Foundling Hospital’s history and accompany the heart-breaking tales of mothers having to give up their children.
In addition, the Foundling Museum tells the story of the wealthy class of philanthropists like Thomas Coram who aimed to raise money for the children at the Foundling Hospital in poverty-stricken times. Coram enlisted high-profile artists like famous portrait painter William Hogarth, who set up a permanent art exhibition to gain donations from wealthy visitors. Therefore, artists were central to the Foundling Hospital’s story and helped to establish London’s first public art gallery. The Picture Gallery on the first floor of the museum is a reconstruction of the original picture gallery located in the West Wing of the Hospital. Today, the gallery displays portraits of the Hospital’s benefactors painted by leading eighteenth-century British artists. However, it was not just artists who ensured that the Foundling Hospital was one of London’s most fashionable places to visit in the eighteenth century. The composer George Frideric Handel conducted annual concerts of his Messiah in the Hospital’s chapel to raise funds. In the Handel Gallery on the second floor, objects from the Gerald Coke Handel Collection are displayed, including Handel’s Will, and the manuscript score of Messiah.
Across the corridor is the Court Room with an impressive Rococo interior, where more examples of eighteenth-century British art can be found. The museum also displays contemporary artworks which are part of the ‘Contemporary Artists at the Foundling Museum’ exhibition. I really liked the museum’s way of incorporating contemporary art with the permanent exhibits, allowing victors to constantly move from past to present. Yinka Shonibare CBE’s vibrant and colourful Trumpet Boy installation in the foyer was one of many which caught my eye when beginning the journey around the museum. It also was interesting to see a variety of artworks in the exhibition ‘Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media,’ which explored representations of pregnancy through portraits over 500 years. The exhibition complemented the themes of motherhood and childhood which were highlighted in the Introductory Gallery displays.
The Foundling Museum is also full of child-friendly interactive activities, great for families or school groups. Fans of British children’s author Jacqueline Wilson will enjoy the museum and can see her portrait by Saied Dai when walking up the staircase. Jacqueline was inspired by the Foundling Hospital when writing Hetty Feather, the fictional story of a young Victorian foundling, and her original manuscript for the novel is displayed in the first gallery.
It is the combination of art, music and literature surrounding the history of the Foundling Hospital that makes the Foundling Museum an incredibly unique and enjoyable visit for all. It is definitely one of London’s hidden gems.
Please note that the museum recently reopened to the public after being closed due the coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Please refer to the website for more information about opening times, booking and safety procedures before planning a trip.
Location: The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, London, WC1N 1AZ.
Admission: Adults - £9.50, Concessions - £7.50.
Free for 21 & under, Foundling Friends and National Art Pass holders.
Closest stations: Russell Square, King’s Cross St Pancras, Euston.
Accessibility: Ramped access, a lift to all floors, accessible toilets and a cloakroom. A wheelchair, facilities for guide dogs, large print interpretation texts and magnifying glasses are available.
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Olivia Richardson graduated with a BA degree in History and History of Art from the University of York last year. Living in the historic city of York with its huge variety of historical sites and museums inspired Olivia’s interest in writing about heritage and public history. She has previously volunteered at the York Art Gallery and National Trust properties and hopes to do a Master’s degree next year.