Hospital drama - Museums Association

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Hospital drama

Sharon Heal on how the Florence Nightingale Museum wants to resuscitate the story of Britain's most famous nurse
Florence Nightingale must be one of the best-known figures in the history of medicine. Elevated to almost saint-like status in the 100 years since her death, she is a formidable figure.

So when the Florence Nightingale Museum (FNM) opened in London in 1989 its mission was clear - to tell her life story as a trailblazer and a woman of influence. And that's what it did, sticking strictly to the script, for the next 15 years or so.

Nightingale would not have thanked the museum for the attention, as she was a shy and solitary woman, who wrote as a girl: 'If I were sure that nobody would remark me I should be quite happy.'
But personality goes a long way, and even now the museum will find visitors from spots as far flung as Japan and America on its doorstep, eager to learn more about their heroine. Even so, over the past few years the museum has had to ask what exactly the pioneering nurse means to modern audiences.

According to the director Alex Attewell, over the past seven years the mission of the museum has changed significantly and its job now is to promote Nightingale's legacy to nursing.

The permanent displays haven't changed since the museum's inception, so bringing the whole thing up to date is a tall order. The first stage will be to redo the displays. At the moment they are dark, sombre and exceptionally wordy. Interpretation and handling objects have been tacked on and the museum does well with school groups (there is a particularly lively Florence impersonator who has children spellbound), but a redisplay is a must.

The plan is to refurbish the galleries over the next two and a half years and ultimately to find a new, more public-facing venue (the museum is currently tucked round the back of St Thomas' Hospital, is difficult to find and gets little passing trade).

In the short term the museum has been modernising the story though projects based on the collections. Nightingale was a faithful and quotable diarist and letter writer and her thoughts about nursing and hospital life have been used in the museum's latest temporary exhibition, Hospital Voices.

The exhibition is based on an oral history project that has collected a wide range of personal views related to the history of the adjacent hospital. Although the temporary exhibition space is small, it has been used to good effect. Each section starts with a quote from Nightingale that is then related to the oral history, which is available via easy-to-use listening posts. So for example the quote, 'It may seem a strange principle to enunciate as a first requirement in a hospital that it should do the sick no harm', introduces a discussion about infection control - a debate made all the more relevant by the startling statistic that one in ten patients will pick up an infection while in hospital today.

The text panel then highlights relevant quotes from the oral history project. In this case, we hear Sita Pigott, who was a nurse at the hospital in 1953, saying that the standards of nursing have deteriorated since Nightingales's time.

The section on the art of nursing explores how expectations and work habits have changed. Each excerpt is given a catchy headline on the text panel that draws visitors to the listening posts. How could anyone resist finding out why Audrey Crump, a nurse in 1935, went on strike? Or what Annette Garfitt is talking about when she says: 'You had to soap it to try and bear it.'

The voices are not just those of nurses; patients and local residents are heard too, and the museum has made a point of working with local community organisations to get a breadth and depth of recordings covering 70 years of hospital history.

Exhibitions based on oral history can be a bit flat, even with well-designed text panels and plenty of pictures. The FNM has avoided this by asking project participants if they had any objects relevant to the stories they were telling. Annette Garfitt's quote refers to the starched uniforms that the nurses wore and alongside is a photograph of her in her high-collared outfit, as well as her sketchbook, which reveals an array of hospital characters.

Other ephemera provide glimpses into the past life of the hospital. These include a programme for the St Thomas' pantomime and a reply to a letter applying for training in 1952, which advises the applicant to return the form with an essay on a hobby or a happy holiday.

Hospital Voices gives a tantalising glimpse into what this museum could be: a space where the future of medical care can
be debated, as well as the past.

Hospital Voices is at the Florence Nightingale Museum, St Thomas' Hospital, London, until 23 December 2007

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