Foundling Museum | Unusual Museum Charting Children’s History
The Foundling Museum recounts the stories of children who were orphaned or abandoned in the capital over a 215 year period, and who were cared for in this very building.
And there’s a lot to be discovered here.
It’s located in the former Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury’s Brunswick Square, established in 1739. It was the mission of sea captain Thomas Coram (whose statue stands in front of the building), a project that he fought for long and hard over 17 years before King George II finally granted a Royal Charter. Back then, hospitals were loosely associated with ‘hospitality’, so it was really more of a home that was designed to take in and take care of the city’s homeless children – the first of its kind to do so in the UK.
Over 25,000 kids were recorded to have stayed at The Foundling Hospital during its history, with the last child said to have been adopted by a foster family in 1954. Now, it serves as a museum (founded in 2004), where the building’s heartwarming (and in truth, often heartbreaking) memories live on.
The museum portion of the errr, museum, retells the hospital’s story; displaying tokens – from jewellery to buttons and coins – that mothers left here, often in state of desperation and poverty, when they dropped their babies off. They served as a point of identification in the hope that they might one day, if their situation improved, come back. As you’ll see by how many tokens are still here, a majority unfortunately never did. There’s also old photos of the children themselves and their dorms, displays of their records and uniforms, an iron-framed bed to show how they slept (and to convey how the kids had little sense of individuality) and other miscellaneous items that were used in the hospital on a daily basis. On the whole, it’s a tough space to process and understandably, will leave you feeling a little tender.
If you’re wondering what’s up with all the fabulous 18th century art on show, the Foundling Museum surprisingly has a collection to rival some of London’s best art galleries. You see, artists are good souls, and the likes of Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds were all heavily involved in supporting the hospital, donating some of their major paintings and portraits. The new generation of artists have followed in their footsteps with contributions of their own, too. So expect to see contemporary work from Yinka Shonibare, Michael Craig-Martin and Tracey Emin, among other notable names. And for 18th century design enthusiasts, it’s also a great-looking art gallery, with the court room in particular being a fine example of a properly-preserved rococo interior.
Composer George Frederick Handel (whose house in Mayfair you can also visit), was another with a big heart who was closely connected to the hospital, putting on special concerts here every year to raise money. He has a well-deserved room to himself, which displays both his final will and the original manuscript of his legendary composition, Messiah. You can even sit in an armchair, press a button, and listen to his music on loop for hours on end if that’s your speed…
Beyond that, as far as other things to see and do at the Foundling Museum go, there’s always an exhibition on, usually centred around ideas of loss and resilience (in the past, one touched on superheroes and how many were actually orphans; Spiderman, Batman etc), as well as family-friendly workshops and the odd orchestral concert. You can find more info on those here.
We won’t harp on about it…
NOTE: The Foundling Museum is open from Tues-Sat. Entry is £10.50 and you can learn more about what they do on their website here.
The Foundling Museum | 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ
Looking for the city’s eccentric side? Look no further than our guide to the most unusual museums in London…