New-look Florence Nightingale Museum invigorates history

By Culture24 Staff | 21 May 2010
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A photo of propaganda adverts from the war encouraging women to join the navy

(Above) Illuminated pictures and interactive screens circle the walls at the new Florence Nightingale Museum

Museum: Florence Nightingale Museum, London, reopened May 12 2010

Hidden within the complex of St Thomas' Hospital, it's easy to miss the turn for the Florence Nightingale Museum and end up lost along the banks of the nearby River Thames.

The rewards for eventually locating this homage to the Godmother of British nursing, though, were significantly enhanced last week when the venue reopened following an eight-month facelift, turning the space into a cavern of three circular pavilions under the designs of internationally-acclaimed Amsterdam agency Kossman de Jong.

A photo of the darkened inside of a museum with grassy walls

Three circular pavilions give the new design a maze-like structure

"We started planning from ground zero really," recalls Caroline Worthington, the Museum Director who took over a "dilapidated" site when she arrived in February 2008.

"We had no funds, but we costed it up and went out to a longlist of recommended designers. The old museum was incredibly traditional – it was 20 years old and lovely for its time, but it was running out of use. The lights were literally going out on us."

Supporters including The Wellcome Trust, the hospital's Charity and foundations including Garfield Weston, Wolfson and Esmee Fairbairn backed the build, which has revitalized the space through theatrical lighting and star attractions such as the writing slate Nightingale used as a child, the medicine chest she used to heroic effect in the Crimean War of the 1850s.

Sections called The Gilded Cage, The Calling and Reform and Inspire reveal her as a social anti-conventionalist, military saviour and campaigner for health reform.

A close-up photo of an owl inside a case

Florence's pet owl, Athena, is one of the star exhibits

"We wanted something that was going to be quite radical but would also bring Florence's story to 2010 and make it relevant," explains Worthington.

"Lots and lots of people have very serious opinions on Florence. She's been written about since before she died, so there are 100 years of writing about her and some pretty strong voices out there.

"That's quite a weighty responsibility, but we're quite confident that we've worked with some really good historical advisors to make sure that what we're saying is the most up-to-date take."

A photo of grassy walls with chalkboards on them inside a museum

Elements to entertain young visitors feature throughout the venue

Visitors can hear the voices of nurses, their co-workers and critics through stethoscopes handed out at the entrance, with images and films surrounding the displays alongside trails and interactive exhibits.

"I'm really delighted," says Worthington. "I'd like to think that it's a really intimate museum, but it's also quite rich, which is unusual for biographical museums.

"There's an element of luck and also an element of just having to make it work with the time and money constraints. As it happens, we've done that."

Open 10am-5pm. Admission £5.80/£4.80 (family ticket £16). Call 020 7620 0374 or visit the Museum online for more details and programme of events.

See inside the Museum with our exclusive tour with Caroline Worthington…

Athena, Florence’s pet owl:

The Lady of the Lamp:

Florence’s writing desk:

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