Gulbenkian Prize 2005 Readers' Poll: The Foundling Museum, London

By Caroline Lewis | 03 March 2005

The entrance to the refurbished 1930s building housing the museum. © Richard Bryant.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

Between now and March 18, 2005 judges will be visiting museums shortlisted for the UK’s largest arts prize, the third Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year.

Here at the 24 Hour Museum, we want to know who you think should win the prize. Click here to see the full shortlist and vote for the museum you think should receive the £100,000, prize or read on to find out how The Foundling Museum came to be on the shortlist.

Hard times in 18th century London led to hundreds and hundreds of abandoned children. With no social services to deal with the problem, Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital became a hugely important institution, taking in nearly 30,000 children between its opening in 1739 and closure in 1953.

The Foundling Museum, opened in June 2004, is devoted not only to the story of those young lives that passed through its doorways, but also to art and music, thanks to its two original governors, William Hogarth and GF Handel.

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.

A view of the original hospital. © Coram Family/Foundling Museum.

“It’s a unique combination,” says Rhian Harris, Museum Director. Indeed, with galleries that house the children’s stories, an art collection including works by Reynolds and Gainsborough and a collection relating to the life and works of Handel, you could say the Foundling is three museums in one.

However, the incredible collection of art that was donated to the hospital was hidden for decades and could have been dispersed, had the Coram Family children’s charity not fought to raise funds to keep it and put it on show. Fortunately, an amazing £7.4 million was found over seven years, donated from various sources including including the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the HLF and the Art Fund.

“It’s an extraordinary journey we’ve been on,” says Rhian Harris. “It was a massive project to make sure the collection was put on display and a complex legal process. We could have lost this important collection.”

The museum is not in the original hospital building, which was demolished in the 1920s, but in a 1930s building opposite the original site. The interiors, however, were taken from the first incarnation of the hospital and feature the magnificent Rococo Court Room, with its elaborately decorated ceiling.

Shows a Victorian painting of a little girl in black and white uniform being handed over to her mother.

The Foundling Restored to its Mother by Emma Brownlow, 1858. © Coram Family/Foundling Museum.

“It was the first public exhibition space,” continues Rhian, “and it’s almost like the first ever charity – it’s an extraordinary piece of history that would have been lost forever.”

In the Coram Children’s Gallery, objects, images and oral testimonies of the Foundling children are imaginatively brought together. The tokens left with them by mothers who hoped they would one day be able to reclaim their children particularly strike a chord.

“It’s an extraordinary, unique story that has been saved for future generations,” says Rhian. “It’s about society responding to vulnerable children, which is relevant to us all. After all, we were all children once. It’s about how we care for each other.”

Asked why the Foundling Museum should win the Gulbenkian Prize, Museum Administrator Alison Duke says: “I think because we tell this incredible story in a sensitive and engaging way. It touches everyone who visits the museum. They always go away with something that they weren’t expecting.”

Shows a photo of a grand room with paintings on the walls and a decorated ceiling. There is a dining table with several chairs around it.

The wonderful Court Room, one of the finest surviving examples of a Rococo interior. © Peter Cook.

Rhian agrees: “Everybody who comes here says it is absolutely stunning.”

The building has been refurbished to a very high standard, worthy of the prestigious artwork and Handel manuscripts and memorabilia that reside there alongside the children’s stories.

If the Foundling were to win the prize, Rhian says: “It would be hugely important for us, in terms of public awareness especially. Being a new institution we need everything that will raise our profile.”

“If we were to win and spend the money, we have two ideas. Part of it could be used to start an oral history project,” she explains. The museum is still in touch with more than 200 former Foundling residents – their stories could be made available to researchers and genealogists if the project were to go ahead.

Shows a black and white photograph of a group of girls standing in rows and exercising in the yard of a large building.

Girls exercising in the Foundling grounds. © Coram Family/Foundling Museum.

The other possible use for the money would be to create a centre of excellence in childcare, working with social workers and artists, in the spirit of the original Foundling Hospital, to find ways to help children today.

“We particularly want to use the creative arts,” says Rhian. “They’re very important for children who find it difficult to express themselves because of what they’ve been through.”

The 24 Hour Museum is conducting a poll to find out who our readers want to win the Gulbenkian Prize 2005.

To vote for The Foundling Museum, click here.

Between now and March 18, 2005 we will have features on each of the shortlisted museums, so if you haven’t decided who to vote for yet, make sure to read all about it on 24 Hour Museum.

To find out more about the Gulbenkian Prize, click on this link to visit the website.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

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