A thimble, a miniature padlock, a button, the shell of a nut. All are on display in the Foundling Museum, as examples of the "tokens" which mothers used to give to the Foundling Hospital as mementos for the babies they were giving up. To ensure the anonymity of the parents, the tokens were never passed on.

The Foundling Museum's collection is often very moving, and it offers a fascinating and honest account of the history of the Foundling Hospital. Established in 1741 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram, the Hospital took in children whose parents were unable to provide for them. Two famous early benefactors, William Hogarth and George Frideric Handel, play a key part in the story, and are amply represented here, adding an aesthetic richness to the historical element.

The museum, set in Brunswick Square in the centre of London, occupies a part of the site of the original Foundling Hospital, and this charity's modern-day incarnation Coram has offices next door. The building was reconstructed in 1937 following demolition in 1926, but retains the ornate architectural character of its predecessor, with some spectacular rococo rooms and furnishings. Most of the museum's historical information is concentrated into a single room, full to bursting with displays, artefacts, sound samples and timelines, and several other rooms have a more relaxed feel, letting the impressive collection of artworks speak for itself.

Different stages in the lives of the children are highlighted through the displays. Alongside the "tokens", a selection of application letters is presented, giving a glimpse into the lives of prospective parents. A box filled with black, red and white balls puts us in the place of such parents: we are invited, as they were, to draw a ball out at random to determine acceptance to the institution. White was yes; black was no; red meant the reserve list. The majority of the balls were black.

Those infants lucky enough to make it, however, were treated to something resembling a decent eighteenth- or nineteenth-century education, and the displays of handwriting exercises, canteen menus and attendance registers are pleasantly similar to – and just as interesting as – what could be expected of any school of that time. The respect which the hospital had for its children is never in doubt, and its truly philanthropic nature is very clear. That said, the information is presented honestly and is not idealised, and one of the most interesting points made is that the element of philanthropy behind the hospital's concept went hand in hand with a very practical concern: a labour shortage. It was economically beneficial, as well as ethically desirable, to help as many impoverished children as possible through infancy.

Despite the wealth of historical displays in the museum, it is (perhaps inevitably) Hogarth who steals the show. A number of his engravings, including a scene from A Harlot's Progress and his hilarious The Enraged Musician, threaten to draw attention away from the vital historical information presented alongside it. Another room has his impressive painting The March of the Guards to Finchley in pride of place. Hogarth even crops up in the historical displays: he worked with the hospital as a volunteer, as well as being a governor, and he designed its coat of arms.

Handel's contribution is also forefronted, both through a few mentions in the main museum display and in a room upstairs which houses the Gerald Coke Handel Collection – a major collection of Handel material. Most fascinating here is Handel's will, still legible behind an enticing red protective cloth, and the various manuscripts on display are worth a look as well – they include a score of The Messiah bequeathed to the hospital in his will.

Other rooms around the house are given over mostly to the Foundling's collection of paintings, largely a mixture of portraits and scenes depicting acts of benevolence which fit with the institution's own philosophy. It's a beautiful place to stroll around, which retains a hint of the character and sense of purpose it must have had in former times.

The Foundling Museum is an excellent account of the history of the important institution it represents, and it's an excellent glimpse into London's social history more generally as well. What's more, the brilliance of its two most famous benefactors ensures that there is plenty to enjoy in less historical terms too. It's a varied and important collection, and well worth a visit.

Foundling Museum, Brunswick SquarePaul Kilbey reviews the Foundling Museum.4