Florence Nightingale Museum

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Florence and other nurses (and their pets)

Florence Nightingale Museum, St Thomas’ Hospital, Lambeth

Florence’s lamp – or one very like it
A Turk­ish can­dle lantern (or fanoos) from Scu­tari hos­pi­tal, used dur­ing the Crimean War – pos­si­bly by Flo­rence Nightin­gale her­self

The founder of mod­ern nurs­ing, Flo­rence Nightin­gale was born into an upper-class British fam­i­ly on 12 May 1820 and named after the city of her birth. Nightin­gale was part­ly self-taught but also trained at the Kaiser­swerther Diakonie near Düs­sel­dorf. In 1853 she took up her first pro­fes­sion­al posi­tion – as super­in­ten­dent of a gentlewomen’s nurs­ing home at 90 Harley Street, where a stone plaque now avers that “Flo­rence Nightin­gale left her hos­pi­tal on this site for the Crimea, Octo­ber 21st 1854.”

In fact, she went first to a tem­po­rary mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal at Scu­tari (now Üskü­dar, a munic­i­pal­i­ty of Istan­bul), with a team of vol­un­teer nurs­es. Here she began her pio­neer­ing efforts, espe­cial­ly in improv­ing stan­dards of san­i­ta­tion and nutri­tion, thus reduc­ing avoid­able deaths. The Crimean cam­paign has been called “the first mod­ern mass media war” and cov­er­age in the British press made Flo­rence Nightin­gale a nation­al hero­ine – and helped her raise the funds and gain influ­en­tial sup­port to aug­ment her work, both dur­ing the war and after­wards.

Fol­low­ing her return to Lon­don, Nightin­gale wrote a sem­i­nal book enti­tled Notes on Nurs­ing and in 1860 estab­lished a nurs­ing school at St Thomas’ Hos­pi­tal, which was at that time locat­ed in the Bor­ough, in South­wark.

St Thomas’ Hos­pi­tal has been based in Lam­beth since 1871, and a sub-ground-floor cor­ner of an annexe called Gas­siot House is home to the Flo­rence Nightin­gale Muse­um.

Although the col­lec­tion here may not be as expan­sive as one might like – in part because Nightin­gale shunned the trap­pings of celebri­ty – it’s extreme­ly styl­ish­ly arranged, thanks to a half-mil­lion pound grant from the Well­come Trust’s Cap­i­tal Awards scheme in 2010. The muse­um is basi­cal­ly one big room that has been divid­ed into three ‘pods’, each devot­ed to a phase of Flo­rence Nightin­gale’s life, work and lega­cy – before, dur­ing and after the Crimean War.

The displays are very stylishly designed
The dis­plays are very styl­ish­ly designed

In addi­tion to all the mat­ters of life and death on dis­play, there’s a hand­ful of more friv­o­lous items, includ­ing Flo­rence’s pet owl, stuffed and perched on a branch. Not unlike the Elgin mar­bles, the lit­tle owl (Athene noc­tua) had been res­cued from Athens and brought to Eng­land for safe­keep­ing, whence it nev­er returned. Flo­rence’s sis­ter Parthenope hand­wrote and illus­trat­ed a short book on the sub­ject, enti­tled The Life and Death of Athena, an Owlet from the Parthenon.

A small space (with a thought-pro­vok­ing video) is devot­ed to Mary Sea­cole, the Jamaican-born nurse/herbalist/hotelier/caterer who spent two years in the Crimea – though she did not work with Flo­rence Nightin­gale, who seems to have dis­ap­proved of her will­ing­ness to dis­pense alco­holic bev­er­ages to sol­diers. Mary Sea­cole died in Padding­ton in 1881. She is com­mem­o­rat­ed by a stat­ue in St Thomas’ Hospital’s gar­den, erect­ed in 2016.

The muse­um also hon­ours the work of Edith Cavell, the Red Cross nurse who was shot by a Ger­man fir­ing squad in 1915 on the orders of the Gov­er­nor Gen­er­al of Brus­sels. Cavell’s pet dog Jack was embalmed and mount­ed after his death in 1923 and is on loan here from the Impe­r­i­al War Muse­um. Jack is shown cen­tre-right in the group of images below.

Like many of Lon­don’s small­er muse­ums, there’s a strong empha­sis here on edu­ca­tion­al fea­tures, aimed main­ly at young­sters – and there’s a pro­fu­sion of peep­holes, through which to view var­i­ous pho­tographs and film clips. School groups are often in atten­dance (and the ses­sions are booked up months in advance) so beware if you’re aller­gic to kids. Before being set var­i­ous obser­va­tion­al and par­tic­i­pa­tive tasks, pri­ma­ry school chil­dren get an inspir­ing talk from an actress play­ing ‘Miss Nightin­gale’. I over­heard such a per­for­mance when I vis­it­ed for Hid­den Lon­don, and was very impressed. There’s a more grown-up pro­gramme of edu­ca­tion­al activ­i­ties for sec­ondary school chil­dren.

Florence six

Florence Nightingale Museum, Gassiot House, 2 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7EW
Phone: 020 7188 4400
Email: info@florence-nightingale.co.uk
Website: Florence Nightingale Museum; also on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest
Open: daily 10am–5pm, except Good Friday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Eve
Admission: £7.50 (adults), £4.80 (concessions), £3.80 (children under 16). See the museum’s website for family and group rates.
Facilities: The shop sells a wide range of items, including postcards, books and gifts. There are no refreshment facilities in the museum but there’s a Mark and Spencers café and shop in St Thomas’ Hospital, and a variety of other amenities.
Nearest stations: Westminster (Jubilee, District and Circle lines) and Waterloo (Bakerloo, Jubilee, Northern and Waterloo & City lines, and National Rail services)