I love getting to a museum that has been on my to-do list for ages, even my Mum and Dad have beaten me to the Foundling Museum. They couldn’t wait to inform me what a wonderful time they had, unable to hide their delight at getting to a museum before me and sampling its treasures. I have got close, I have stood outside, even had my picture taken on the steps as part of Museum Marathon but never had the time to venture inside until today.
The Foundling Museum (established in 1739) is both Britain’s first home for abandoned children and London’s first public art gallery. A strange mix really when you think about it, and I am intrigued and excited to finally see inside. The museum only opened 10 years ago and I seem to have accidentally timed my visit with their birthday celebrations. As soon as you step inside the building, you realise it is one of those places that just has an aura of something that is hard to put your finger on. It is a place of many stories, and it feels special when you step out of the bright sunlight. I have seen nothing but I feel I could write many blogs here, I can just sense it.
Unusually for me, I hit the cafe first. Feeling a little jaded from a late night, I am in dire need of a pick-me-up and some recuperation before my visit. It was the best decision I could have made. Early morning, the cafe was quiet, setting up for the day, bright and clean. I have gone all indulgent with a delicious coffee in front of me and a scone with cream and jam , I take time to collect my thoughts. Looking round the cafe walls I am completely entranced by the amazing Lemn Sissay mural on the walls, a visual exploration of fostering and adoption in popular culture.
The project aims to reveal and elevate fictional characters who were fostered, adopted and orphaned. The first one I see – ‘Batman was orphaned’ – I smile, my son is fixated on Batman. He is not the only superhero to adorn the walls, Spider-Man was adopted, Superman was a foundling. It soon becomes a game to place the characters and their origins. As you read the names and place them in favourite books or films you suddenly become aware of how many characters have this in their past, being orphaned, adoption and fostering. Is it why these characters are so popular? This sometimes hidden, sometimes unspoken, past? Do some of them carry it as a badge of honour? Of independence? Not all are ‘good’ characters, some are ‘villains’, it is strange how your past can be used as an explanation of a life lived, good or bad.
There are two other ladies at a table by the window, their conversation drifts over to me, not the details, but I catch certain phrases, they are talking about adoption. One of them is adopted, I hear the terms; ‘real mother’, ‘baby’, ‘adoptive mother’, ‘left behind’, ‘never saw her again’, ‘new family’. It is strange to hear these terms, it is not normally the type of conversation you overhear. It is personal, it can be painful, it is a private thing.
I should perhaps mention at this point that someone very close to me is adopted, together we have shared a lot on the journey of discovering his past. The word ‘journey’ is used too lightly in today’s society, but it is the only and best word to describe the things we have done, from the first conversations and the first steps, the time it has taken and the highs and lows of tracing your birth parents. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, an overheard conversation has triggered in me conversations I have had in the past. I haven’t said those words for a long time, it strikes me that perhaps this is a place where those conversations can happen, where they don’t need to be whispered, here is a place those words can be said. The black text on white walls around me as I sit here, the bold names, the repetition of adopted, fostered, orphaned. It feels safe, it feels important that you can say these words. I know there is someone I must bring with me next time, it might not be that easy for them, but I think it will be important they come, find this place where those words can be spoken more freely.
All this and I haven’t even started to look round the galleries! I enter the first gallery, an introduction to the origins of the hospital and the mothers who made the heartbreaking decision to give up their babies. They list the common reasons behind such decisions; poverty, widowhood, desertion by a husband, the shame of illegitimacy. Like many visitors before me, I am captivated by the foundling tokens pinned to baby clothing by desperate mothers, the tokens were attached to the admission record of each child. Once admitted, foundling children were given new names, new identities, these tokens the only links to their past, to a mother who may one day come to reclaim them. The children were not allowed to keep the tokens, they sat with their record of admission sealed with wax.
Many of them are everyday objects, they are not gifts, keepsakes or love tokens, they are identifiers. There is something so powerful about these tiny objects, a coin, a medal, a thimble, a playing card. Many have been marked, inscribed, or changed in someway to make them more recognisable. They are such emotional objects, they are heart breaking, their story and circumstance, the reason why they are here, makes their ordinariness obsolete.
There are some that catch my eye, a coin cut in half, the mother kept the remainder in the hope of one day bring two halves together and reclaiming their child. It really tells the tale of a time when mothers left their children and walked away with nothing, no paper work, no follow-up letters, no registration number, no progress report, almost like nothing had happened, one child’s existence wiped away and a new one begun. The tokens left behind having to hold all the memories and history of mother and child.
Another coin has holes punched into it four times, I think about the effort made to make the marks, how to decide how many to put into the coin, would it make it more recognisable? What if another mother marked her coin in the same way? Is four enough, should I mark it again? You can feel the thought processes behind this object, they resonate out of the glass case, it makes them feel immediate, the grief is still fresh, it is not a forgotten, dusty relic.
Some tokens have lost the link to their original records, in the 1850s and 60s the decision was taken to open the records and display the tokens. These are the real foundlings of this collection, left and lost, their original identity wiped away. One in particular makes my breath catch in my throat, a beaded heart, the time taken to make it, the tears that fell, it is physical painful to look upon. It seems I am not the only one who has dwelt on the heart, round the corner there is a space to leave your own token and I see the heart replicated by a young visitor with the words “I’ll always remember you and I hope you’ll remember me”.
As I leave this space, I move through different galleries holding period artwork and the latest exhibition of contemporary pieces in response to Hogarth’s ‘Rake’s Progress’. Hogarth had strong links to the hospital and persuaded leading artists of the day to donate work for the good of the orphans, their creative philanthropy ensured the continuation of the hospital. There is much to see, and much on Handel too, his connections to the hospital and an extensive collection of his manuscripts and ephemera.
Unfortunately my thoughts are stuck on the tokens, their emotional resonance will not leave me and I struggle to engage with period rooms and large oil paintings of refined men, important and upstanding. They feel a million miles away, hazy in my indifference, there is one the makes me stop, a portrait of Luther Holden, honorary surgeon at the hospital, by John Everett Millais. There is real life in the portrait and I stand for a while in the stillness thinking of the people who came to live and work in this place.
When I leave the room, there is a window open and over a gentle breeze, I hear children laughing, chattering, I look out the window and see bright colours and green trees. The children are seated together in the shade, it is a beautiful moment, I watch them and the minutes pass me by, I think of the children who were given a better start, a new beginning in this place, it balances the sadness of loss and regret.
I have struggled to connect with Britain’s first public art gallery today, my emotional responses to the Foundling Museum have gotten the better of me. But then as I go to leave, I linger by the entrance to the cafe, realising I have had a very strong reaction to the contemporary artwork of Lemn Sissay’s mural. The oil paintings that adorn the walls here, they may not have captured me, but I think about their original audience. When these pictures were donated they would have been the latest thing, fresh and contemporary to the eyes that viewed them. They may well have engendered just as strong a reaction to the patrons of the Foundling Hospital of the past.
The Foundling Museum has a unique connection to art, you come here and your emotions and senses are heightened, it opens you to the artwork in a new and surprising way. In truth I can’t wait to return, to bring someone so very close to me, we will sit in the cafe, surrounded by the mural, we will certainly have a cup of delicious coffee. Maybe we will have those conversations that we haven’t had for a long time, in this special place where those words are welcome and those conversations have been had many times before.
The Foundling Museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10-5pm Sunday 11-5pm
There current exhibition – ‘Progress’ runs from 6th June – 7th September 2014
Lemn Sissay – Superman was a foundling runs from 14th June – 7th September 2014
For their 10th Birthday celebrations the museum is open for FREE 14-15th June 2014
Join them for a street party with games, food, birthday cake, art workshops, face-painting. Live music all weekend, brand new introductory gallery, new exhibition Progress and a new project by Foundling Fellow Lemn Sissay
Admission charge includes entrance to all temporary exhibitions and displays.
Adult: £7.50 (£8.25 including Gift Aid)
Concession: £5 (£5.50 including Gift Aid)