10 small (and fascinating) museums in London…3. The Foundling Museum

Opened in 2004, the Foundling Museum was created to look after the former Foundling Hospital’s collection of art and artifacts and provides a unique and deeply moving insight into the work of the hospital and those who came under its care.

The Foundling Hospital’s origins go back to the 1720s when former mariner and ship-builder Captain Thomas Coram, shocked by the number of abandoned babies he saw in London (it’s estimated that in the early 1700s, there were as many as 1,000 babies being abandoned every year), began a campaign to found a hospital for “exposed and deserted young children”, that is, ‘foundlings’.

The hospital was founded in 1739 after King George II granted it a royal charter and, from that date until its closure in 1953, had some 27,000 children pass through its doors.

The museum’s story is not an easy one to tell for while the hospital was founded with the best of intentions, the life of the children who came into its care – even in the 20th century – remained far from easy; it was not, as one of those who formerly lived at the hospital notes, a life they would wish on anyone else. But the museum handles their story – as well as that of those behind the hospital’s founding – with care and dignity.

Located at 40 Brunswick Square – close to the site of the original hospital, the museum is spread over four floors. On the ground floor is an exhibition which details the hospital’s history and features objects including a series of sketches by the controversial 18th century artist William Hogarth, an ardent supporter of the hospital’s work and later one of the many artists who became a governor, as well as the founding charter document itself.

Among the most poignant of the artifacts to be found in the museum are the tokens mothers left with their children so they could later identify them (these were removed from the children on being taken into the hospital, however, to ensure the child’s anonmity).

The lower ground floor has a space for temporary exhibitions – at present this contains the ‘Foundling Voices’ exhibition in which those who once lived under the care of the hospital tell their stories firsthand in what is an emotional journey into the hospital’s relatively recent past (the exhibition runs until 30th October). It is also home to the reconstructed Committee Room, built as part of the original hospital in the mid-1700s, dismantled and then reconstructed in the new headquarters.

Upstairs (the stairs themselves were taken from the boy’s wing of the original hospital), is a reconstruction of the hospital’s original Picture Gallery which was London’s first public art gallery and was instrumental in raising the profile of the work of the hospital. Among the works it contains is Hogarth’s 1740 portrait of Captain Thomas Coram. Nearby is the Court Room, another reconstruction from the original hospital, this time of the building’s most splendid room, used for meetings of the Board and Governors and other special occasions. It too contains numerous artworks.

The top floor of the building houses the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, said to be the greatest collection of artifacts relating to composer George Frideric Handel in the world. Handel’s assocation with the museum goes back to 1749 when he offered a performance of his music to help fund the hospital’s completion. He held another the following year, this time performing the Messiah, and after that Handel agreed to an annual benefit performance – a practice which continued until his death in 1759.

Key artifacts in the Handel collection include the composer’s will and codicils, written in his own hand, as well as programme from the first performance of the Messiah along with other documents and artworks.

WHERE: The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury (nearest Tube station is Russell Square); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Saturday/11am to 5pm Sunday (closed Mondays); COST: £7.50 an adult/£5 concessions/children under 16 free; WEBSITE: www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk.