Florence Nightingale Museum, London - Museums Association

Florence Nightingale Museum, London

The story of pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale is successfully brought to life by the museum that bears her name, writes Jane Weeks
Jane Weeks
“It may seem a strange principle to enunciate as the very first requirement in a hospital that it should do the sick no harm.”

Florence Nightingale’s words, written in 1859, could equally have been uttered by a politician on the stump in the recent election campaign.

Nightingale was a visionary health reformer who broke through the stifling social conventions of her privileged and protected Victorian childhood to transform nursing into a respectable profession for women.

She campaigned tirelessly to improve health standards and inspired the founding of the International Red Cross. A talented mathematician, she was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Statistical Society and was the inventor of the pie chart.

This year sees the centenary of Nightingale’s death and, to mark this, the Florence Nightingale Museum has completed a £1.4m redevelopment.

The museum, which opened in 1989, is situated in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital in London, on the site of Florence Nightingale’s first Nightingale Training School.

It’s an unprepossessing site, hard to find and tucked away under the approach to the hospital, but it’s worth the search, as the museum has been transformed.

Inside, three high-walled pavilions focus on three aspects of her life: her privileged childhood; life in Crimean War military hospitals; and her impact on hospitals in the 19th century and legacy today.

The first pavilion, in the form of a rose-filled bower, surrounded by a tall box hedge, illustrates the repressed nature of her wealthy upbringing and her struggle to persuade her family to allow her to train as a nurse. The second pavilion features walls covered in Turkish tiles and the showcases wrapped in bandages.

It tells the story of Florence and her nurses in the military hospitals in Scutari, Turkey, nursing the injured soldiers fighting the Crimean War.

The third pavilion, in the form of a panelled library, shows how Florence continued as a driving force behind the scenes, campaigning about the standards of sanitary conditions in India, and establishing her Nightingale Training School.

This is not an object-rich display, though the relatively few items on show include some iconic artefacts. There is the medicine chest that Florence took to Scutari, the stuffed body of Florence’s pet owl, Athena, which travelled everywhere with her in her pocket, and a Turkish lantern used in the wards of the Scutari military hospitals, the source of her nickname, “the Lady with the Lamp”.

The design is ingenious, as the three circular pavilions give the effect of the space being larger than it is. It also looks very theatrical, with fake hedges, a bed stuffed with letters, and bandaged showcases that make up for the lack of artefacts and provide an engaging backdrop.

A great deal has been concentrated into a small space The hedge surrounding the first pavilion is filled with spy holes at different heights, revealing photographs of Florence’s family and home.

The Scutari and library pavilions have pull-out drawers, housing graphics and interactives as well as documents and artefacts. And an audio tour, using stethoscopes, allows you to hear Florence’s own words.

The walls of the museum are lined with historic and contemporary photographs of nurses and patients. Among them are a series of videos of nurses talking about their experience of nursing.

A group of nurses who came to the UK from the Caribbean in the 1950s provide dignified reminiscences about their reception: “It was cold. It was bleak. There was racism.”

Another video shows an army nursing officer talking about the huge leaps forward being made in trauma surgery in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the high standards maintained in the field of war.

A third features a series of nurses explaining what encouraged them to train as nurses. You feel that helping to recruit the next generation of nurses is one of the aims of the museum.

There aren’t that many museums in the UK devoted to particular historical figures that are entirely successful, but this is one of them.

The liberal use of quotes from Nightingale’s own letters and reports, and the honest but fond descriptions of her on the graphic panels (“she could be funny and generous, harsh and stubborn”) bring her to life as a person, as well chronicling her achievements.

Jane Weeks is a museum consultant

Project data

Cost £1.4m
Main funders Wellcome Trust, Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity, Garfield Weston Foundation, Fidelity UK, Foyle Foundation, Wolfson Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, London Bridge Hospital
Exhibition design Kossmann de Jong

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