Foundling Museum Opens Its Doors Again

By Andrea Geeson | 11 June 2004
Shows a black and white photograph of a group of girls standing in rows and exercising in the yard of a large building.

Photo: girls exercising in the London Foundling Hospital. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.

After an enforced 50-year closure, The Foundling Hospital is ready to re-open under a new name, The Foundling Museum. For the first time the building will accommodate art and history entirely separate from the children’s hospital.

Great care has been taken to recreate the original setting of the sanatorium. Foundling Museum curator Rhian Harris assures the 24 Hour Museum that the exhibition rooms are authentic:

"We have saved an entire plaster ceiling and attached original plaster to the walls. Other rooms are exact replicates of the 18th century building where the collection was first housed."

Like a cultural version of a Kinder Egg, The Foundling Museum fulfils three wishes all in one neatly preserved package.

Inside the museum, situated in a fully restored 1930s building in Brunswick Square, you are served an historical feast where you can learn the remarkable story behind the hospital and its founder, the bountiful Captain Coram.

Shows a black and white photograph of a group of men dressed in black suits, coats and top hats, walking along a line of girls dressed in aprons and workwear.

Photo: the Duke of Connaught inspecting girls at the London Foundling Hospital. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.

There is a chance to indulge musical yearnings in a chair that plays George Frideric Handel’s tunes and satisfy arty cravings with the extensive collection of art from original supporters Hogarth, Gainsborough, Hudson and Roubilliac.

The Foundling Museum tells the fascinating story of the Foundling Hospital, which, like an early day Live Aid, used artistic creativity to cure shocking social ills.

Started by a retired sea captain with a heart as large as his boat, it became London’s most popular charity.

Shows a painting of Captain Coram depicted in 1740. He is dressed in a long, red coat and has bushy white hair. To his right there is a free-standing globe.

Photo: Portrait of Captain Thomas Coram By William Hogarth 1740. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.

On his return to England in 1719, Captain Thomas Coram was stunned by appalling social conditions, which literally brought him to his knees after he tripped over an abandoned baby left in a gutter.

Thousands of babies were being discarded on the streets of London in the 18th century due to extreme poverty and the huge social stigma attached to having a baby out of wedlock.

Determined to do something about it, Captain Coram solicited the help of his contemporaries. He had a talented set of friends and together they set up the refuge using their artistic skills to fund it.

Good pal musical genius George Frideric Handel wrote the hospital anthem, performed regular concerts in the hospital chapel and left a copy of the score of Messiah to the hospital in his will, both of which can be seen in The Gerald Coke Handel Collection.

Shows a bust of George Frideric Handel.

Photo: a bust of Handel by Roubiliac. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.

At the time there were no public places for artists to exhibit their work so the plan to decorate the Foundling Hospital was revolutionary and it became Britain’s first public art gallery.

The art on display today deserves special appreciation as it was nearly lost forever in a legal tryst involving the former Attorney General who advised the Coram family to sell the collection on the open market.

Rhian Harris is thankful newly elected Labour were more sympathetic to the cause: "After the change of government, a new Attorney General was appointed who was far more positive about trying to save the collection. We were able to come to a legal solution to the problem."

Shows a painting of the Foundling Hospital as it looked originally. There are two large buildings behind a wall, which is broken at the front by a row of gatehouses.

Photo: a view of the old Foundling Hospital. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.

The compromise allowed the museum to house the collection and gradually purchase it from the family.

Accompanying the large assemblage of art is a collection of items, which destitute mothers left with their babies in the forlorn hope that, in more fortunate times, they could be used to identify and reclaim their offspring.

Ranging from hazelnut shells to pieces of ribbon, it is a very moving collection.

Shows an embroidered heart from the collection of tokens left by mothers who entrused their babies into the care of the Foundling Hospital.

Photo: an embroidered heart from the collection of tokens left by mothers who entrused their babies into the care of the Foundling Hospital. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.

Captain Coram worked tirelessly for 17 years to improve the prospects of deserted infants. The newly built Clore Education Centre aims to specifically encourage visits from children so continuing the Captain’s vision and philosophy.

Asked why she thought children should visit The Foundling Museum, Rhian Harris says: "Foundlings is a museum for children about children. There is a lot they can gain by learning what another child ate or what they learnt at school."

The Foundling Museum is set to open on June 15.

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