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In London it is all too easy to tread a familiar path and go to the same old sites. It's a shame because London is chock a block of little hidden gems if you take the time to find them. Literally round the corner from the British Museum there is another museum, which in its own way is just as fascinating and just as important as its larger, better known, neighbour. This lovely museum is the Foundling Museum. This museum is an important part of London's social history and artistic heritage. It was set up to commemorate London's first orphanage the Foundling Hospital, which doubled up in its usage as London's first public art gallery. The museum tells the story of the institution, the 270000 children that it cared for between 1739 and 1953 and three men who were instrumental in setting the Hospital up- its founder Thomas Coram, the painter William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel.
I think a little bit about the historical background to the museum is needed to understand why this is an important part of London's history. Captain Thomas Coram first thought of the idea for the Foundling Hospital in 1712 after viewing babies abandoned in the streets of London left to die. These were often illegitimate children and there was no means of supporting them apart from the parish workhouse as illegitimate children were frowned upon, as they were the result of prostitution and immoral behaviour. Coram campaigned for 27 year-s at first without much success- to raise money to set the hospital up. Eventually in 1739 George II granted a charter for the Foundling Hospital. Once the institution was designed and built by Theodore Jacobbson funds needed to be raised to support the foundlings. English painters donated their works (there are works by Hogarth and Reynolds) and Handel (one of the early supporters of the charity) commissioned the Anthem for the Foundling Hospital and also performed his key work including the Messiah. The Hospital became a popular place for wealthy patrons to view the art, listen to the music and also see the Foundlings. Due to this the Foundling Hospital was Britain's first public art gallery.
The original building was knocked down in the 1920s (the columns of the children's exercise corridor are the only part to remain) when the foundlings were moved to accommodation in Surrey and Hertfordshire until 1953 when the society changed its methods of supporting children. The present building was built in the 1930s as the Headquarters to the Coram Trust and has eighteenth century proportions. The Foundlings Museum was opened in 2004
The Foundling Museum is situated at 40 Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury and is easy to get to. The nearest tube station is Russell Square on the Piccadilly line but it is also within comfortable walking distance from Holborn and Saint Pancras-Kings Cross.
The museum is situated on four floors. It is best to start on the ground floor in the social history room. This personally is my favourite room as I am interested in people's stories. This room explains the origins of the Hospital and also information on the Foundlings' lives. There's a model of what the Foundling Hospital looked like when it was first built. I found the little love tokens the mother's left with the children so they could be identified if they ever came to claim them very poignant. Some are quite fancy whilst others are very plain such as a hazelnut shell from a mother who had nothing else to leave with her child. The letters from the mothers also touched me. This included one from a mother condemned in Newgate prison for defacing a coin and one from a mother who wanted to claim her child as she had found a husband who was willing to look after the illegitimate child. The really sad thing was the child had died in the Foundling Hospital and the mohair never knew.
The other thing that made the room stand out for me was a large panel of text with the new baptismal names of the Foundlings (each foundling was rebaptised once it was admitted to the hospital). The institution's recent past is documented by oral histories from former foundlings, which you can listen to through audio tracks.
The two moist important rooms in the museum are the ones that were reconstructed from the original Georgian hospital. The Court Room where the committee used to meet is particularly impressive due to its lovely ornate plasterwork ceiling. I particularly like the roundels (circular paintings) depicting the most prominent institutions in the 18th century including Greenwich Hospital, (for retired sailors) Bethlem (know as Bedlam the original mental asylum) and Charthouse (painted by Gainsborough).
The Paintings Gallery is where the fashionable people came to view the art. This room displays mostly paintings of prominent patrons including a portrait of Thomas Coram donated by Hogarth. I like the drawings and sketches in a small corridor off the Paintitngs Gallery, which depicts every day life for the foundlings.
These rooms are interpreted very simply with laminated sheets, small labels by the paintings and very helpful, enthusiastic room guides. I feel that this is appropriate, as larger panels would take away from the magnificence of the ornate rooms.
Upstairs is an exhibition dedicated to Handel. The exhibition shows a copy of the Foundlings' Anthem that Handel left to the Hospital along with a copy of the Messiah in his will. The feature I liked best in this exhibition was comfortable armchairs that had speakers in the headrest so you could immerse yourself in Handle's work. There is also a library of Handel's manuscripts for those particularly interested in the subject that can be viewed only by appointment.
The lower ground floor has space for temporary exhibitions and also houses the museum's education centre. At the time of writing there is an exhibition on Handle's lost opera about Julius Caeser
The museum is quite small so takes about an hour to go round. I am not sure if this museum is an obvious place to take children. The paintings would do very little for them. The museum does actively provide activities for children. There are some great activity packs to borrow and there are some lovely replicas of the Foundlings' uniforms plus Thomas Coram's coat for the children to dress up in. However the visit could be combined with time in Coram Fields. This is a park especially for children, where adults are only allowed in accompanied by a child.
There is a small shop in the reception area selling books and CDs alongside the more common stuff such as pencils, notebooks, guidebooks and postcards. The guidebook is a little bit pricey at Â£5.99 but it does contain a lot of very interesting information.
There's a small coffee shop Cafe Coram next to the museum, which does a selection of light meals such as sandwiches from around Â£2.50 to Â£4.00. I have not sampled these but might do in the future. I would be tempted to do so if it was a nice day as there is outdoor seating.
I think the one drawback tothe museum is the entrance charge. It is Â£5 for adults and Â£4 for concessions. This might be a little bit pricey if you only have a passing interest in the museum and might hinder competitiveness with other similar attractions especially since a lot of the larger museums and galleries in London are free. Luckily children get in free, as do former foundlings.
I reality would recommend the Foundling Museum if you are in London. It really is a fascinating little known gem of a museum.
The Foundling Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday