I was a bit surprised when I walked into the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ Hospital in London – I was expecting a traditionally laid out, beige and open plan exhibition space, but instead I found two brightly coloured, partially enclosed areas made up of synthetic hedgerows and exotically patterned ceramic tiles, with a third more traditionally styled brown wooden area at the back. Far from being your regular museum display cases these were eyecatching and inviting and separated the sections clearly without making the space feel cluttered.
The colourful surroundings encouraged me to read more and take more in as they were engaging, created an interesting backdrop and made the whole feel of the museum more enjoyable, making me want to stay longer at each piece. I learnt how Florence fought hard against her parents, her sheltered middle class life and what she described as the “tyranny” of the drawing room to be allowed to train as a nurse – an occupation deemed impossibly unsuitable for a pretty, young, middle class lady.
The museum didn’t feel particularly object focused and they could have used the objects better by having more object highlights to help tell her story. I particularly liked a wooden headrest (above) given to her by a Sheikh who liked her courage when travelling down the Nile in a small boat. This could have been used in focus to show how her spirit and outlook on life were so different to other priveleged women of her time rather than being just one of many objects in a case with a small caption.
They did of course have a Turkish lamp prominently on display which is thought to have been used by Florence on her nightly visits round the wards at Scutari during the Crimean war in the 1850s. Florence had been invited by Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of State for War, to lead a group of female nurses to treat the wounded, whose deaths from their injuries in terrible conditions was causing public outrage back in the UK. And it was here that her hard work and humane treatment of the wounded made her famous.
I briefly looked at the temporary exhibition on the workhouse and even though this is a subject and period I am interested in I found the room quite bare and the texts over-wordy. I’m not sure whether it had all been installed (I went on it’s first day) or if I’d just been spoilt by the creativity of the rest of the museum, but it definitely felt a little flat.
The museum manages to take a subject many people know a little about (or who perhaps just know the name) and creates an engaging and interesting space to learn more. I assume it is also within the school curriculum judging by the many groups of small children who were there (you might want to check in advance how many groups are booked in if you think this will be a problem for you), but the design did not feel like it was just aimed at entertaining children, because frankly its not just children that want some colourful distractions in a museum.
Florence Nightingale Museum
2 Lambeth Palace Road
Admissions: £5.80 adults; £4.80 concessions