The Foundling Museum: An insight into how it can be experienced by children

The exterior of the Foundling Museum. Courtesy of the Museum website

The Foundling Museum was created to enlighten the public on the history of the Foundling Hospital that was established in 1739 by Thomas Coram. The aim of the hospital was, as Colley states, ‘to rescue young lives that would otherwise be wasted and render them useful to the state’[1]. The history of foundlings has often been left out of the national narrative, thus the museum was established to shed light on the history of the ‘forgotten children’ of London and brought the history of foundlings into the national memory. Funkenstein argues that ‘collective awareness presumes collective memory’[2], thus by attempting to raise the awareness of the history of foundlings, the museum is attempting to re-insert it into our collective memory. The museum aims to educate children on this specific aspect of the past as they would be the same age as those who were taken in there and tries to evoke thought and empathy.

As the museum tries to make children relate to those of the past it is wondered whether children could relate at all given all the luxuries of modern society. The contrasts of childhood could prevent the child from engaging with the exhibits and putting themselves in the place of the foundlings. The museum provides a variety of interactive services to help children reflect on the past lives of those who were admitted into the Foundling Hospital. However, whether they are effective in engaging the child in experiencing empathy or any cathartic experience is another question beyond the scope of this investigation.

The museum aims to show the public what it was like for some working class and illegitimate children, to be brought up with very little to no recollection of their parents, their only connection to their past life being a token that the mother would have left with the child on the day that she gave him or her to the hospital. As adults, we could comprehend the harrowing tales of mothers leaving their children, but it would be more difficult for a child to experience the museum in the same way and understand the social history that the museum reflects. Throughout the museum you could see a range of interactive stations specifically catered for children to make the experience fun but with the added aim to make them reflect on what it was like for the foundlings and how they experienced growing up in a foundling hospital. The children could dress as a foundling, showing them the uniforms of the children with no choice of alternative dress, they could see the bed of a foundling child indicating what little comfort the hospital could provide the vast numbers of children admitted and they could create their own token, reminding them that tokens were often the only connection that these children had with their mothers and their previous life. According to Tosh, there is now a ‘keen understanding that the public experiences history visually – directly through the material remains of the past’[3], thus by showing tokens, beds and clothing that the foundling children actually used, the museum is heightening experience that the children gain and thus inserting the narrative of the foundling children into the scope of public history.

Girls in the Foundling Museum. Image courtesy of the Museum website

What was immediately noticeable, was that plaques were aimed specifically for children to make them engage with the exhibits and aimed to provoke thought. Such plaques prompted questions like: ‘When children came to the hospital they were given new names. Why is your name important and how would you feel if it was changed?’, showing that the museum can be experienced on a profound level by the child visitors. Questions that help the children understand what children their age went through during the period of the Foundling Hospital give us a unique insight into the thought process of children experiencing the museum by witnessing how they react and what questions they ask to try and get a better understanding. This helps us to understand how they understand the exhibits around them Questions such as; ‘Imagine how you would feel if you were a child living cold and hungry on these streets. What would frighten you?’ directly makes children feel a range of emotions and provokes the sense of empathy showing them that these experiences were real for some children their age. This idea of specifically aiming questions at the children harmonises with Gowing’s point that the plaques are aimed to make the children display a range of emotions and puts them into the narrative of the museum[4].

Another way in which the museum aims to engage children into learning about the history of the foundlings is through literary and television characters. Jaqueline Wilson, the children’s author, bases numerous characters on foundlings and orphans, characters like Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather are well known household names to young children and the museum takes advantage of their links with Wilson by housing first drafts of ‘Hetty Feather’ in their exhibit. Wilson has strong connections with the museum, and the museum advertises this in their brochure with direct quotes from the author herself: “I think the foundling Museum is one of the most fascinating and touching museums, giving you a real sense of what it must have been like to be a foundling child”[5]. This reinforces the assertion that the Foundling museum is experienced by children through empathy and helps children discover what foundling children would have experienced in the hospital, which is the museum’s main aim, to shed light on the untold story of the forgotten foundling children and to help the public gain an experience of what it was like for these children. Wilson also draws in on main features of the museum like the staircase and describes how she can imagine her characters living there and interacting with the museum; “The museum has a very large wooden staircase, which was there when it was a hospital. Every time I go up there I imagine Hetty creeping up and down the stairs, or sliding down the banisters.”[6] References like these help visitors and indeed children visualize children actually living in the hospital and gives a more personal connection with artifacts and exhibits within the museum itself.

Hetty Feather book featuring the Foundling Hospital. Image courtesy of Penguin Publishers

In the café the use of children’s characters to evoke a personal connection with the museum is made more apparent as the walls are filled with phrases such as ‘Harry Potter was an orphan’, ‘Rapunzel was fostered’, and ‘Superman was adopted’. Well loved characters throughout history and every literary genre appear on the walls helping children engage with the fact that many of their heroes experienced life at one point without parents or suffered the fate of being a foundling. The sheer amount of names of characters that were foundlings must have a profound effect on the child’s experience of the museum as often having a personal connection with these characters can help the children become more empathetic towards experiences and artifacts in the museum rather than just looking at pictures and photographs of children in the 18th century onwards. By directly aiming certain interactive elements such as the direct accounts of past foundlings via video and radio aids the child’s experience at the museum as they can hear first hand accounts of what it was like to live in the hospital. Thus these elements make the experience of the museum itself more profound and helps children understand what foundlings had to experience, giving food for thought to help the child try to experience the emotion of a foundling themselves. It puts children into the narrative and thus brings the history of the foundlings in Britain forward into the national narrative and thus our national memory.

Although we as adults are able to comprehend the plight of the foundling children it may appear to be harder for children to fully comprehend how children their age were given up by mothers as they could not imagine being given up by their own mothers, given new names and new identities when their identities were just forming. Children experience the museum in a different way unable to fully retain facts and figures so it has to be explained in a different, more interactive way. The museum provides a variety of ways in which children can experience the museum and experience the history of the abandoned children of London. However, the ways in which each child would experience the museum would undoubtedly be different as not each person experiences the same thing in the same way. There cannot be a completely universal experience. The museum itself ‘paints a vivid picture of family separation, the stigma of illegitimacy and the search for birth parents’[7], which creates emotive responses within the children visiting and the strong feeling of empathy causes us to insert the history of the foundlings of London back into our national memory.

[1] L. Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837,(London, 2006), 59.

[2] Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History, (Berkeley, 1993), 3.

[3] John Tosh ‘Public History, Civic Engagement and the Historical Profession in Britain’, History, Vol 99, No. 355, (2014), 195.

[4] Laura Gowing, Podcast on the Foundling Museum no.2.

[5] The Foundling Museum Brochure, London.




Doria Shafik: The Egyptian Feminist Forgotten by the West.

courtesy of:
Portrait of Doria Shafik

I debated how to start this blog post a lot. I thought I should dive right in and start the biography of this amazing feminist icon, but then I thought it might be better to introduce her in the way I was first introduced to Doria Shafik. A serendipitous accident which started with me taking a part time job during my studies at an interior design firm.

It was the year 2016 in which I was working for the Egyptian interior design firm Jamspace which was based in London and run by Hedayat Taymour, a very talented and kind lady whom I had the pleasure to work for selling furniture and interior design services. One day she asked if I could rearrange some items in the store and one of the items were these beautiful bookends. However, being more of a book worm my eyes were drawn to the two books in the store that had been held up by these bookends. One was a coffee table book displaying pictures of Cairo, the other was called ‘Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist’, written by Cynthia Nelson. I asked Hedayat who Doria was and what had she done for Egypt. Hedayat replied telling me that Doria was her grandmother and did a plethora of amazing deeds for the women of Egypt. She gave me the book to keep and told me that I would be fascinated by Doria’s life story and indeed I was. I could not put the book down. I was transfixed reading the story of this amazing woman who has little to no recognition by Western feminism. From that moment on, I have felt it my duty that I should tell anyone and everyone Doria’s story so that this amazing woman’s story can inspire not only Egyptian women, but women around the world.

Doria was born December 14th 1908 in Tanta, Egypt. She was raised in a middle class family and from an early age, discovered gender inequality in her own home, often listening to female family members discuss unhappy stories of their domestic life. She was schooled in French missionary schools in which it was soon discovered that she was extremely bright and talented. She excelled throughout her academic years and when it finally became time to go to university she chose to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, her family were against it and school fees were too expensive, especially if it were to be spent on schooling a woman. Doria, not willing to be stifled by her family, took her education into her own hands and wrote a letter to Huda Hanum Sha’rawi- the founder and principle organiser of the first feminist organisation in the Arab world.

Sha’rawi was touched by Doria’s letter and invited her to Cairo where a strong (yet eventually complicated) friendship blossomed. With Sha’rawi’s help, Doria obtained a government scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne and left for Paris immediately. Doria was enchanted by the different outlook on life that Paris had, where she could further educate herself on philosophy and women’s rights, and yet she couldn’t help but miss her homeland and her beloved Nile. She returned to Alexandria in 1935 and competed in a beauty pageant in which no Muslim woman had ever entered on account of it being immodest. She placed first runner up but caused scandal amongst the Muslim community as she had behaved immorally by entering the pageant.

She returned to Paris in 1936 to focus on her doctoral thesis where she met Nour al-Din Ragai who was studying commercial law. They eventually married and returned to Egypt in 1939 where Doria was eagerly awaiting her final doctoral dissertation defence date. The date eventually was set for March 9th 1940 and Doria immediately hurried to Paris eager to defend her thesis. To her delight she was awarded her doctorate with honourable mention. One member of the panel Emile Bayet stated; “Madame, your thesis is the best defense of women’s rights existing or ever likely to exist. You have proved things about Islam about which there can be no doubt. You have succeeded in correcting our erroneous ideas about Islam. You can consider yourself as the lawyer of Muslim women in general and the Egyptian women in particular”. She returned to Egypt hoping to be praised but was met with a lack of interest from her family.

Back in Egypt in 1945, Doria was approached by Princess Chevikar who wanted her to serve as editor-in-chief of a new magazine ‘La Femme Nouvelle’. Doria relished the challenge, but this appointment put her relationship with Huda Sha’rawi and the Egyptian Feminist Union who saw the princess as attempting to compete with Huda. Despite the tensions between the two powerful women, Doria saw the appointment as an opportunity not to be missed. However, Doria found the elite classes surrounding the princess out of touch and found no friends at the Egyptian Feminist Union who saw her now as the enemy.

Doria finally decided to step out on her own and start her own Arabic women’s magazine ‘Bint al- Nil’– daughter of the Nile. The magazine included articles on women’s issues, nutrition, fashion, and advice on how to raise children. It became extremely popular and with Doria’s control over both magazines, she became a symbol of women’s rights in Egypt. With growing political unrest in Egypt, Doria set out to change the fortune of women in her country, not only demanding suffrage but wanted to change the laws that prohibited women from running from elected office as well as certain Islamic laws that allowed the husband unlimited polygamy.

The Daughters of the Nile Union organised and ran literacy classes, an employment agency, mutual aid programs, a discounted cafeteria and cultural events, including theatrical performances for women. Most of all, it agitated for political rights. Her main ambition however, was to improve the literacy of Egyptian women.

Doria, at the height of her fame travelled around the globe lecturing about women’s rights and their relation to Islam. She was well regarded by everyone as a great speaker and a great campaigner.

When Egyptians were campaigning for independence from Britain, Shafik started a uniformed paramilitary unit of the Daughters of the Nile. In January 1952, she led a march to surround and shut down a branch of Barclays Bank, deeming it a symbol of British colonial rule.

In 1954, Shafik vowed to go on a hunger strike “to my last breath” and was joined by a handful of other women in a fast that made headlines around the world. “We are convinced that the women who form more than half of the Egyptian nation must not, at any cost, be governed by a Constitution in the making of which they played no part.” After 10 days without food, hospitalised because of her deteriorating condition, Shafik appeared to succeed; the acting president promised her that women would have “full political rights.”

As a result of Shafik’s efforts women were granted the right to vote under the constitution of 1956 only if they were literate, which was not a rule for male voters. In 1957 Doria attempted another hunger strike, this time for six days. Doria decided to start her strike in the premises of  the embassy to avoid the risk of being arrested. The media attacked her as a traitor to the government. Her female allies now turned against her, and she was expelled from her own Daughters of the Nile. With almost no one on her side, she was forced to spend the next 18 years in near total seclusion.

Doria was sentenced to house arrest and spent eighteen years in solitude with only her family visiting her. She was essentially forgotten by those who once revered her. On September 20th 1975, Shafik committed suicide by throwing herself off her balcony.

Doria Shafik is remembered fondly by her family and friends and the women of Egypt rightfully as a champion of women’s rights and women’s education. To the Western world, Doria still remains an overlooked figure with many western women failing to recognise her achievements. Since learning about her story, I have felt that it is my duty to share her story wherever I can and on International Women’s Day her story should be shared.

Me at the Women’s March 2016 with a sign quoting Doria Shafik.

All information is courtesy of Cynthia Nelson’s book: Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart.