MGM 2005: Mary Seacole At The Florence Nightingale Museum

By Kate Honeyford | 12 May 2005
shows a picture of a woman dressed as Mary Seacole and a man standing at a podium

Sir Trevor McDonald OBE opens the Mary Seacole Bicentenary exhibition, with actress Nina Baden-Semper as Mary Seacole. Picture courtesy Florence Nightingale Museum.

Pausing to pick up a lamp, Kate Honeyford made her way up to the London to visit the Florence Nightingale Museum.

A Mary Seacole Bicentenary exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum was opened on May 10 2005 by newscaster Sir Trevor McDonald.

The museum is small, the exhibition is tiny - but its impact is huge.

Mary Seacole has been known as the black Florence Nightingale and, like her more famous nursing colleague, also travelled to the Crimea, playing an important part in the development of modern nursing and the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers.

Alex Attewell, museum director, explained why the exhibition is so important. “The exhibition is very much a partnership project. One of our partners is Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and the Royal College of Nursing and they approach this from a professional development view, history that promotes management diversity.”

shows a scan of a felt tip drawing of Mary Seacole with the words determination.

One of the drawings produced for the exhibition in workshops with local schools. Picture courtesy Florence Nightingale Museum.

Because of her Afro-Caribbean heritage, Seacole had learned how to treat the diseases that troops succumbed to abroad such as cholera and yellow fever - knowledge unknown to the army doctors working in the Crimea.

Not only a skilful nurse, she was an independent traveller and an entrepreneur; she could be a model for modern businesswoman in the way she used her influential contacts. “When she died, she left her pearls, not to her sister, but to Count Gleichen, a cousin of Queen Victoria,” said Attewell.

Another partner in the exhibition is The Black Cultural Archive, an organisation that works to recover black history. “Rediscovering the story of Mary Seacole’s life is important to the identity of black people in this country,” added Attewell.

“She used to be remembered for the discrimination she faced. She is now beginning to be remembered for her achievements, for overcoming the obstacles. She would have preferred that.”

shows a group photograph of smiling schoolchildren

Children from local schools have been integral in shaping the content of the new exhibition. Picture courtesy Florence Nightingale Museum.

In the corner of the exhibit stands a cabinet of herbs like the ones Seacole used. They are real and you can handle them. Poisons, like rhubarb leaf, are safely behind glass.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society is an exhibition partner, in recognition of the contribution that African and Caribbean herbal medicine made to the development of modern drugs.

The Florence Nightingale Museum is in Lambeth, a London Borough where 25 percent of the population identify themselves as of Afro-Caribbean origin and the museum has been working with local schoolchildren.

The smiles on the faces of the six-year-old exhibition visitors trying on hats just like Seacole would have worn indicated they were having fun. There are workshops in schools for older children too.

shows a drawing of a soldier on crutches - duplicated four times

Another drawing produced from workshops involving local schools. Picture courtesy: Florence Nightingale Museum.

Exhibitions like this are helping to make sure we include everyone who has contributed to British history and culture. Some things are beginning to change already. Speaking about his experience of a recent school workshop, Attewell said, “One child asked ‘Who is Florence Nightingale?’ ‘The white Mary Seacole,’ another child replied.”

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Kate Honeyford is participating in the 24 Hour Museum/ MGM Arts Writing Prize 2005.

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