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.




2 thoughts on “The Foundling Museum: An insight into how it can be experienced by children

  1. There are certainly plenty of details like that to take into consideration. That is a nice point to bring up. I offer the thoughts above as normal inspiration however clearly there are questions like the one you bring up the place an important factor can be working in trustworthy good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around issues like that, however I am sure that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Each girls and boys feel the influence of only a moment’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.


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