Founding principles - Museums Association

Founding principles

Caro Howell, the director of London’s Foundling Museum, talks to Eleanor Mills about social impact and saving lives with art.
“We tell a story about how artists, literally, not figuratively, helped saved children’s lives,” says Caro Howell, the director of the Foundling Museum in London since 2011.

The museum opened in 2004, but the basis for it began with the Foundling Hospital, which was set up by the sea captain turned philanthropist Thomas Coram to help save London’s most vulnerable children. It took 17 years of tireless campaigning for him to do so, and in 1739 he received a Royal Charter from King George II to go ahead with the project.

The campaign to establish the institution gained traction with famous names such as the artist William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel. It’s these male names who have received most of the limelight until now, but there were a number of women who were instrumental in the hospital’s establishment too.

In this year of the centenary of women’s suffrage, Howell is keen to emphasise the importance of the female figures who were so key in helping establish such an important institution. “The 21 Ladies of Quality and Distinction were the first catalytic supporters of the Foundling Hospital and really changed its fortune,” she says.

“After the first 10 years of trying to get a single man to support his petition, and failing dismally, Coram turned to the women, and it was these 21 ladies who signed the very first petition. Yet, they have effectively been written out of, or at best, completely side-lined in the history of the hospital.”

The exhibition Ladies of Quality & Distinction will open to the public on 21 September and will bring together the portraits of these 21 women for the first time, reuniting them on the site of the charity they helped create.

The feat is thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, which has achieved 176% of its initial target. So, as well as covering more of the installation costs for the exhibition than Howell once expected to be able to, the additional funds will enable the museum to research many other women associated with the hospital throughout its 300 year history. As yet unsung females intrinsic to the institution’s success include laundresses, scullery maids, cooks, matrons and wet nurses.

In the year of Vote 100, the museum is also hosting a rolling programme titled First Amongst Equals, which started in January and runs until the end of the year.

“We have invited women who are the first in their field to select something from the collection and write a short text explaining why,” says Howell.
Contributors include Maria Balshaw, the first female director of Tate; Moira Cameron, the first female “Beefeater”, yeoman warder of the Tower of London; Francesca Hayward, the first black female principal dancer of the Royal Ballet; Carris Jones, the first female chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral; and Joanne Moore, the first female tailor to have a men’s tailoring business on the famed Savile Row.

“With both of these projects we want to look at the history of the Foundling Hospital from the other end of the gender telescope,” says Howell. “And not just at the aristocratic women, who were catalytic in getting the hospital off the ground, but we also want to pay tribute to all the working women who ran the hospital day-to-day.”

Social currency

Just as Hogarth donated work to the hospital, there have also been many female artists and craftspeople who gave their art over the centuries, and female singers who made Handel’s work famous.

“As in all of the work that we do, we want to put the past and present in dialogue, so our summer exhibition is a site responsive sculpture commission from the artist Jodie Carey, which draws inspiration from the 18th-century fabric tokens that were left by mothers with their babies as a means of identification,” says Howell. Sea will run from 25 May to 2 September this year.

Commissioning art isn’t new to Howell, and has been central to her career. She has always had a particular focus on how art can aid social inclusion.

“When I was applying for director, it made total sense to me because my career had already to a large extent involved working with and commissioning contemporary artists, particularly from the late 90s, when New Labour was at its height,” she says.

“Labour’s social inclusion agenda shaped much of the way that museum and gallery education was working. Whatever current social issue was being addressed, whether it was crime reduction or social cohesion or mental health, the arts were in there as somehow being able to solve it and my job was about holding the line for the artist’s autonomy.”

Howell’s time at Tate Modern as the curator of youth and special projects was particularly noteworthy.

“Between 1997 and 2000, during the pre-opening period, I was very involved in working with the architects around access, not just physical but also attitudinal and intellectual access, and before that, from 1995 to 1997, I worked on a very big project for Tate’s centenary.”

The celebration was also linked to the tercentenary of the birth of Hogarth.

“We worked with 90 young people from Southwark and Lambeth to create an opera from scratch. It was called Halycinia, which the name they gave to their vision of a financially transmitted disease, and it was based on Hogarth’s Marriage a La Mode series. They created the book, wrote the libretto, developed the score, designed the costumes, for performance by a professional orchestra, and cast.”

Out of that project, in 1999, the year before Tate Modern opened, Howell began developing a peer led programme for young people aged between 15 and 23 for Tate. She pioneered what began as Raw Canvas, which has now become Young Tate.

“We also delivered a lot of the programme for disabled people, but my area of specialism was around sensory impairment – visual impairment, deaf, deafened and hard of hearing, and deaf blind people too,” she says. “And out of that came i-Map, which is an ongoing online resource run by Tate for blind and partially sighted people.”

Coming home

“When I came here, it made complete sense. The museum feels like the spiritual home for socially engaged practice. Everything about our story is about creative autonomy. Nobody asked the artists who helped set up the Foundling to do anything. Everything was the idea of the artists themselves. It was them who approached the hospital with suggestions as to how they could help, how they could get involved, what they could do. And from the records, it looks as if pretty much the governors response was; ‘If it’s not going to cost us any money, and you’re not going to get in the way, then go for it.’ In the process they set the template for the ways in which the arts can support philanthropy, whether it’s benefit concerts or charity auctions or profile raising.”

The museum now works with local orphanages, as it closed as a hospital in 1954, but some of the ex-pupils volunteer for the organisation even now. The Foundling Museum tells an extremely emotional story, and Howell is acutely aware of this.

“I’ve never worked anywhere like here, in as much as it is absolutely normal for our visitors, men and women of all ages, to be in tears, completely choked up,” she says. “When we refurbished the Introductory Gallery, we had to think about the physical layout in terms of where visitors can step out and have some privacy while they try and pull themselves together.”

Howell says that one of the museum’s Fellows, the artist Richard Wentworth, put it beautifully: “He said, ‘The museum is not about children, it’s about childhood,’ which means it is something that all of us share,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had children or not, we have all been children, we have all had childhoods and that is what people respond to, that thread of humanity, combined with a story that’s very inspiring,” she says. “We tell a story about perseverance.”
Caro Howell at a glance
Caro Howell has been the director of the Foundling Museum since March 2011.

She studied BA theatre studies at Warwick University and MA art history at Birkbeck College. She joined Tate in 1993 in development and education, before becoming part of Tate Modern’s set-up team in 1997 leading on community and access.

She left Tate in 2003 to work on a research project at the Centre for Medical Education, University of Bristol.

In 2005 she became head of education and public events at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. She sits on a number of advisory boards and is a co-chair of the Women Leaders in Museums Network.
The Foundling Museum at a glance
The Foundling Hospital, which continues today as the children’s charity Coram, was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment.

From 1741 when the first babies were admitted, to 1954 when the last pupil was placed in foster care, the Foundling Hospital cared for and educated around 25,000 children.

The Foundling Museum opened in 2004. The building, at 40 Brunswick Square was constructed in the 1930s on the site of the hospital, and incorporates many architectural elements from the original building.

The museum is run by 11 full time equivalent staff, and about 160 volunteers. Around 53,000 visitors come through the doors each year.

The Foundling Hospital archive is kept at the London Metropolitan Archives. The museum also manages the Gerald Coke Handel Collection.
The museum’s two newest acquisitions are works by Yinka Shonibare and Michael Craig-Martin.

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