The Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas' Hospital has had a major refurbishment since I last visited, and I am happy to say that all the hard work has paid off. It is now a beautiful, calm space that invites you to explore at your own pace.
The exhibits are arranged into three distinct 'pavilions', focusing in turn on Florence's childhood, her Crimean experience, and her campaigning work. Each area has its own theme, conjuring up three separate atmospheres, which I thought worked very well. The first pavilion is the 'Gilded Cage', set out as a tranquil garden arbour. Here, Florence's childhood is explored. I particularly enjoyed learning about her relationship with her sister Parthenope: despite being completely different in their personalities they remained incredibly devoted to each other. Florence also benefited from some close friendships she made during her younger years that continued to inspire and fortify her during her long life. Florence's desire to do something, to be useful, rather than make a good marriage is emphasised. She believed her vocation was God-given, but nursing was a shocking path for a well-brought up middle class girl to take in the early nineteenth century. It was during the protracted battle of wills with her parents over her future that her life-long bouts of invalidity began. The most singular exhibit in this section is her now-stuffed owl, Athena, a beloved if bad-tempered pet. She is a tiny thing, but a big reminder of Florence's desire to care for and nurture those around her. It made me think about how much her own ill health may have driven her on.
The second pavilion is decorated with beautiful Turkish tiles. It looks at how Florence put her 'calling' into action in the Crimea. Not only did she have complete dedication to the task of nursing the troops fighting in the Crimean War, but she backed it up with phenomenal powers of organisation. First there were nurses to interview and select. The standards were very stringent, and only women of the highest moral standard were chosen, comprising both Protestant and Roman Catholic nuns, and professional nurses. Once employed the women were subject to military style discipline, not all of which was popular. A nurse's apron is on display, along with a quote from one of Florence's nurses, Rebecca Lawfield: "If I'd known, Ma'am, about the caps, great as was my desire to come out to nurse at Scutari, I wouldn't have come, Ma'am." The uniform was apparently very unpopular, being uncomfortable and ill-fitting. There is an excellent digital version of the nurses' register on display that gives lots of information about the women who signed up to the daunting task of military nursing. One of the most striking individual exhibits is displayed in this pavilion, a Turkish lantern or fanoos, for which Florence became forever associated with. There are also personal items, such as her pen and ink and a small glass lamp all of which she used to pen the many letters and fill numerous notebooks whilst she was there.
The final part of the permanent collection looks at what Florence did after the war ended and she returned home. This 'Reform and Inspire' pavilion is enclosed by a series of bookcases. Despite being bed-bound for extended periods, Florence wrote books, pamphlets and letters at an enormous rate. There is a fabulous work of art in the middle of this section created by Susan Stockwell, called Bed Book (2010), made from pages of Florence's work. There are also many examples of Florence's writing on display. Her campaigning for health reform and nursing training come across forcefully. The plans for a new St Thomas' Hospital - just one of her projects - are very interesting to look at: you can see her insistence on fresh air and order in them. Her legacy to modern healthcare is clearly shown in this section, demonstrating that her work is not only something relevant to the past.
The museum tells the story of Florence Nightingale's life and career excellently. There are some fascinating objects on display, including some lovely drawings by Parthenope Nightingale. The audio guide and information captions are helpful and add to the exhibits. Her work is put into a wider social context, and other influential people are also discussed. By having three distinct sections, the museum emphasises that there was more to her life than the Crimean War. It was not easy for her to follow her own path, and she never ceased her struggle to improve standards and conditions. All around the walls of the museum are images of nursing in practice. It is a fitting tribute to the nurses around the world whose dedication and service to others sees them follow in Florence Nightingale's footsteps.
When I asked the kids if they had enjoyed the museum, I got a resounding yes and a double thumbs up. Children get their own audio guide, fashioned as a stethoscope. There are numerous spyholes throughout the museum, at all different heights, which were very popular because of their secret nature. There are also some interactive features, such as drawers to pull out and a touch screen game. The most popular were Mary Seacole’s herb chest and a hand-washing drawer. The wooden boxes under the Seacole display contained various ingredients used in her herbal remedies. The lids lifted up to reveal samples to be touched and sniffed and some information about what they were used for. The hand-washing drawer reinforces Florence’s insistence on cleanliness and lets kids practise their technique. The museum assistant helping the children there was friendly and definitely knew her stuff.
The ‘Invite Intrigue’ trail was also very popular. Devised as a quiz with the answers to be found throughout the museum, the kids liked it as it gave them a chance to find things out. They liked it much better than just having to look for things and tick them off. The layout of the museum impressed the children too, and they learnt a lot. It rated as one of their favourite days out this year.