Florence Nightingale Museum Hopes To Buy Her Pet Owl

By David Prudames | 29 July 2004
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Shows a photograph of Athena, Florence's pet-owl.

Photo: the Florence Nightingale Museum needs to raise £13,000 before Christmas to make Athena and other artefacts part of its permanent. David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Once the devoted companion of the 'lady with the lamp', Athena has been welcomed with open arms at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London.

The small stuffed owl was once the famous nurse’s pet and along with 19 other items associated with her has been loaned to the museum by AgeCare, the elderly care charity.

For the last 50 years, AgeCare has owned the artefacts as well as Florence Nightingale’s former family home of Lea Hurst in Derbyshire. But the house and its contents are now up for sale.

The Florence Nightingale Museum has until the end of the year to raise the £13,000 needed to purchase the unique collection of personal effects, works of art and, of course, Athena.

Shows a photo of a woman in Victorian costume holding a case with a glass front, which contains a small owl and sime brown foliage.

Photo: museum Learning and Access Officer Zoe Gilbert was Florence for the day as Athena was welcomed to the institution. David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Launching a fund-raising campaign, museum Director, Alex Attewell told the 24 Hour Museum how if it raises the cash, the institution would be making the biggest single acquisition in its history - an acquisition he feels is well worth it.

"The owl is the most important addition that we could possibly make," he explained. "It says something fundamental about Florence Nightingale."

"We’ve read in newspapers about how strong and driven she was, but the owl shows a different side. It shows Florence Nightingale as a nurturer and a carer."

Nightingale rescued Athena from some Greek boys at the Parthenon in Athens in 1850. To be persuaded to enter a cage, the owl had to be mesmerised, but soon became a devoted companion.

She would perch on her mistress’s finger for feeds, as well as bow and curtsy on a table, but her life came to a rather sad end in 1855.

Shows a close up photograph of a page from a printed book. Hand-written notes have been made in pencil in the margin by Florence Nightingale.

Photo: among the artefacts is a British Army text book which features hand-written notes made by Florence Nightingale. David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

On hearing of Florence’s imminent departure for the Crimea, the family left Athena shut in an attic. Starved of the attention she craved, the owl - it seems - died of a fit, leaving her owner heartbroken.

Following Florence’s instructions, the bird was taken to London and embalmed. It remains in very good condition and was recently conserved by the National Trust, who for a time had it on display at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire.

When the decision was made to sell Lea Hurst, the Florence Nightingale Museum was given first pick of the mementoes and works of art associated with the famous nurse and her family.

According to Alex Attewell if this opportunity hadn’t been granted the museum would probably not have been able to purchase the hugely significant collection.

Shows a photograph of a small wooden, rectangular box. Its lid is open on hinges.

Photo: a small container reported to have been the famous nurse's lunchbox! David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

"If we had been in an auction situation, we couldn’t have guaranteed keeping the collection together," he said, adding that for such a large amount of items to become available at all is a rarity.

"With a personality there’s going to be a very limited set of artefacts so in terms of a personality museum it couldn’t get much bigger than this."

Although heritage bodies initially expressed an interest in buying Lea Hurst, the idea was rejected because the house wasn’t considered to be economically viable as a tourist attraction and it will almost certainly go to a private buyer.

Attewell is, however, determined to keep the artefacts in the public domain and they will definitely form the centrepiece of an exhibition, which will mark the 150th anniversary of the Crimean War and Nightingale’s arrival in Scutari this November.

Whether or not they stay at the museum on a permanent basis remains to be seen.

Anyone wishing to support the fund-raising campaign can contact the museum by calling 020 7620 0374 or emailing jenny@florence-nightingale.co.uk.

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