Museums and galleries should find ways to make connections with people who have lived in care, Foundling Museum director Caro Howell has said.
Speaking during a visit to the museum by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge earlier this week, Howell emphasised the role that cultural institutions can play in supporting and celebrating care-experienced young people.
“This museum is unlike any other museum in the world, because for care-experienced young people, who have experienced such isolation and grown up without family, this museum gives them ancestry,” Howell said.
She added: “Museums and galleries should reach out to those agencies that are on their doorsteps… Because they will be there, people with care experience in their histories are everywhere and finding ways to make connections and reach out, I think is very important.”
Since its beginnings as the Foundling Hospital, art has always been at the core of the museum’s work, with artist William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel among its earliest supporters.
“Hogarth knew this right back in the 18th century: if you want to get society to care about babies that are being abandoned in the streets, you don't lecture them about the causes, you provide them a way to be stimulated and interested and engaged,” said Howell.
Since 2017, Founding Museum has offered paid employment and training in a range of valuable life skills to care-experienced young people, through its Tracing our Tales programme.
“I think many or all cultural institutions could run a traineeship for care leavers,” said Emma Middleton, who runs Tracing our Tales.
“But I do think there's something really special about it being run here, because we tell the story of care… We're trying very hard to build up a community of young people, with a shared history and a shared story, where it's very safe.”
Care-experienced young people who have taken part in Tracing our Tales, met with the Cambridges earlier this week to discuss the traineeship.
Shereka, a graduate of the programme, said: “Often we think about the arts as something that's very sophisticated and very upper-middle class, and sort of unattainable to those who don't necessarily come from that walk of life.
“Being a care leaver and being a part of this traineeship, coming into contact with art itself, with different forms of expression and learning how to interact with it, learning how to express yourself, it helps you to realise that those things are actually attainable.”
Alongside offering education and support, Tracing our Tales and the Foundling Museum’s wider programme are both concerned with dispelling the stigma that often surrounds experiences of care.
“We need to, as a society, understand and remember that experience only adds value to a person… I think we should wear [our experience of care] as a qualification. We have experienced this, so we are experts in our own right,” said Tracing our Tales trainee, Noura.
Foundling Museum’s work in this area will continue this April, with the opening of the exhibition Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics. It will be the first major exhibition to explore the representation of foundlings, orphans, adoptees and foster children in comics.
Howell said: “What [the exhibition] is really going to do is enable visitors to see that point about care-experienced people hiding in plain sight, that they are there in all societies.
“The experience of growing up in care, which we as consumers have those narratives about – it’s so exciting and thrilling and showing up all these possibilities for jeopardy – but the reality for the person living it, is very often one of isolation, of struggling to achieve a stable sense of self, of having to create identities for themselves to fit other people.”