London Museum (mini) Challenge 2014 #3: The Foundling Museum
December 8, 2014 § 3 Comments
If I were awarding accolades to the museums I’ve been visiting on this little version of the Challenge, then Pitzhanger Manor would be Most Haunted/Haunting, the London Canal Museum would be the Most Multilayered… and the Foundling Museum is, without a doubt, the most poignant.
The museum is dedicated to London’s – indeed Britain’s – first home for abandoned children, the brainchild of Thomas Coram, a sea captain and philanthropist. Coram involved many of the great and the good in his creation; William Hogarth was one of the first governors, as was Handel (who provided significant funding via performances of the Messiah), and the paintings donated by Hogarth and his contemporaries effectively made the Foundling Hospital Britain’s first public art gallery (it’s even considered a forerunner of the Royal Academy). The original hospital is long since demolished, but a few of the historic interiors were preserved and have been installed in the present museum, which stands on the original site at the top of a park now called Coram’s Fields.
The ground floor galleries are dedicated to the history of the Foundling Hospital and the daily life of the thousands of children who passed through its doors (opened in 1741, it only shut its doors in the 1950s). They’re not huge but what they lack in size they more than make up for in interest.
In some respects the Foundling Hospital was well ahead of its time – the very fact of its existence, its commitment to keeping its charges healthy and properly fed and educated, its insistence that the children be trained to be productive members of society when they eventually left (they all entered apprenticeships or, in the case of a large proportion of the boys, joined the army). In other respects, its system seems harsh and narrow to 21st-century eyes – the dormitories were adequate but austere, the daily routine one with little room for relaxation, imagination or pleasure, the education the children received was designed primarily to make them fit for subservient occupations. Generations of foundlings complained that a childhood spent in the Hospital with virtually no contact with the outside world left them naïve and ill-prepared when they were thrust out into that world as apprentices. But even though we might (rightly) disapprove of the above, it’s well to remember that judging an 18th-century institution by the standards of the 21st is far from fair. When I emerged from this part of the museum I had concluded that on balance, the Hospital did far more good than otherwise.
I have to admit I found the two upper floors less compelling. The art collection housed on the first floor is an important one, no doubt, but, with the exceptions of a few Hogarths and Gainsboroughs, the sort of grandiose 18th-century British painting that dominates has just never done anything for me… although the ornate plasterwork in the Court Room was a joy to behold. The Handel collection was more frustrating – though that was down to singularly poor exhibition design. The designer (whoever he or she was) had the bright idea to fill the room with armchairs fitted with speakers from which a different piece by Handel emanates – with the result that when you’re walking around the gallery you’re assaulted by some four or five different pieces of music playing simultaneously. Even when you sit in one of the chairs (with a speaker on either side of your head) the sound from the other chairs still leaks through. I was able to stand it for all of five minutes before I fled. (I would suggest that any die-hard Handel fans would be better off visiting his house in Mayfair.)
No, this time it wasn’t paintings or music that most moved me about a museum – it was something much humbler. From the day it opened, the Hospital required mothers leaving their children to attach some sort of token to the child’s person that would identify him or her should the mother ever return and reclaim them. Each token was noted carefully in a ledger alongside the child’s birth name; the child was given a new name and would only ever learn his real name and parentage if reclaimed. Only a small percentage of parents ever reclaimed their children, with the consequence that the Foundling Museum now has a large collection of tokens. Scores of them are displayed in cases, most of them modest objects – beads, buttons, marked coins, trinkets, scraps of cloth or ribbon, ribbons… sometimes just a scrap of paper with a verse written on it. Each one represents a child who never knew who he or she really was. Even massed together as they are, each token looks impossibly small and vulnerable, like a stand-in for the child it was originally attached to.
You’d have to have a heart of stone to come away from this unmoved.