The Foundling Museum – London

Friday 21st August, 2020

This is a place I have long wanted to visit, and having recently read Lemn Sissay’s My Name Is Why (an excellent book that left me speechless and in tears), I felt a renewed urge to book a ticket. Advance booking, reduced numbers, mask wearing, all helped, along with the Art Pass making it a free visit. Plus a temporary exhibition about the portrayal of pregnancy in art made it a must book while I was in London.

I booked for 10am, the opening slot of the day, as a way of further reducing the number of people I would be sharing space with, but actually that was no worry at all. The numbers are so limited that it was incredibly easy to maintain distance the whole time I was there, and at points I was completely alone in the galleries. That was a big bonus, it gave me the time to read all the cabinet displays and really take in what I was seeing.

The pregnancy exhibition was sensitive and although small, fairly comprehensive in covering about 600 years of art. There were handmade and delicate pregnancy stays, portraits, self portraits, gynaecological models, magazine covers, digital prints and sculpture. To see Alison Lapper pregnant at eye level, instead of on Trafalgar’s plinth was wonderful, although also very sad, given the loss of Parys Lapper so recently. The issue of race and pregnancy could have been teased out further, the two Annie Leibovitz Vanity Fair covers of Demi Moore and Serena Williams were both there and the reactions to the pair of images was not just different because of the time in which they were taken. The last image, of Beyonce, resplendently pregnant with twins, all baroque Madonna, was stunning. I was left wanting more, and at greater depth.

The one way route takes you up to the original entrance way (now the exit) where the first thing you hear is birdsong and the first thing you see is a rather magnificent piece of modern art. I really loved the way the Foundling mixed the contemporary art in its collection like this, it transformed what could have been a dry, old building into something full of life and colour. Again, I wish they had taken it further and installed some jarring modern pieces among the Gallery upstairs, so that the ‘great and good’ of Georgian society and their ships were mingling with the more recent commissions. It is a brave, bold move to show both, but where I’ve seen the juxtaposition (Damien Hirst in Chester Cathederal, Grayson Perry at the Holbourne), it works so well and enhances both the old and the new.

The gallery devoted to the history of the Foundling is powerful, evocative and full of information if you take the time to stop and look. I knew it would be an emotional place to visit, but nothing really prepares you for seeing the tokens, or reading the ledger book, or seeing the uniforms with the child’s number stitched in. That really struck me, how they were not names, but ledger numbers. It felt very cruel and inhumane. Each one of those uniforms belonged to a child, behind every number was a face, hopes, dreams and potential. Yet they were reduced to numbers and treated en masse to the same regimented treatment. Bullying was rife, near encouraged, by the sounds of it and loneliness and mental health problems must have been endemic. Yes they were fed and housed and educated, but at what cost to their wellbeing? I felt frustrated that the story of the foundlings was still being portrayed as one of hope, that their lives were better here than in grinding poverty with their mothers. Whilst I do not doubt that many of them were better off, and survived in way they would not have done otherwise, I cannot feel that they were treated fairly or with any decency by a regime that seemed completely devoid of the one thing children need more than anything; love.

The entire idea of white, wealthy men like Thomas Coram being the saviours of the poor is not an image that sits well with me. It never has. The truly revolutionary thing to have campaigned for would have been fair pay, safety and security of working conditions, decent housing, equality so that women who had sex outside of wedlock were not treated as pariahs. All things we are still fighting for today. The idea that white, liberal men know best is still pervasive. modern ideas of child rearing and development come from the same group and they still run the world. Much has changed, but much has also stayed the same. The state care system is still an unloving and cruel system for children to be in. Those placed in are still predominantly children born into poverty. They still leave school with fewer qualifications and with greater rates of addiction. Have we really moved on when a child in care graduating from Oxbridge is headline news because it happens so rarely? There should be space for those arguments too, Foundling. I was left with a deep sense of wanting to know an awful lot more. The stories of the mothers for a start. How, when and why residential care homes were abandoned and what transition arrangements were made for children caught between the two models. What life is like now for a child in care (this is touched on quite briefly). The aural testimonies of children with archive footage was quite powerful, but needed to be in a dedicated room of its own, where you could sit down, out of the way of the cabinets and really listen. I was left with more questions than answers, which is partly the job of a museum and if I had time/money/inclination perhaps there are resources I could find that would answer some of them. Were any of the Foundlings ever reclaimed? Do we know any of the stories of the mothers who left their children? What about the babies who lost the lottery and were not admitted? There is so much more to know!

Standing in the receiving room, which now houses art and historical photography of the foundling buildings, I felt overcome with grief. To know I was standing in the room where desperate mothers handed over their babies, hit me very hard. I thought of the pain and anguish each must have felt. Can you imagine how hard it would be to leave your infant like that? In that moment I so badly wished to hold my own son and tell him how loved and treasured he is. I thought of all my ancestors, none of whom were rich, and how easily any woman in my line could have been one of those who had been in this room. That in different circumstances and at another time, it could have been me. I was glad to be alone, although I also dearly would have loved someones hand to hold in that moment as I wept silent tears for those women.

What I had not known about the Foundling was that Handel had been instrumental in funding it. composing a theme and holding fundraising concerts. His conducting score is displayed and I will admit to a little thrill of excitement at seeing that, along with his will. Handel’s signature! His will gave generously to the Foundling, but also his servants and I found that rather lovely. Having visited the also excellent Handel and Hendrix Museum last year, I felt that visiting both gave me a deeper understanding of each. I got to sit in a chair I wanted to steal, red leather, with speakers in built (I mean talk about heavenly) and listen to the Messiah for a little while. It was much needed space to digest and come to terms with the emotions I was feeling.

The Foundling is a gem of a museum, despite what I have said about them needing to go further, the team here have put together an informative and vibrant history that needs you to visit and support. Yes I found elements frustrating, I saw no mention of how Coram’s wealth was made, which must have been from slavery, even if it was indirectly, and that needs addressing immediately, but the core of what is needed is here. They are uncovering vital history, of people at the margins, of those so often forgotten and overlooked.

I was tired out, it has been a while since I’ve traipsed round two galleries/museums in as many days and all the emotional output of both the Foundling and my first trip away since March, drained me. I had intended on walking to Paddington to get the train home but flopped onto a bus after getting lost.

It was a very worthwhile trip and if you are able to get to the Foundling Museum, then take the opportunity. We have to support all our arts and culture, much of it won’t be here when the pandemic is over otherwise.

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