Friday, 3 February 2012

Remembering the 'Lady with the Lamp'. And the Pie-Chart. And the Stuffed Owl [not stuffed at the time]...

Set across the river from the imposing Houses of Parliament, the Florence Nightingale Museum is nestled in the grounds of the teaching hospital of St Thomas’ where, in 1859, she set up the first training school for nurses.* Although housed in a rather uninspiring warehouse-like space, the museum curators and designers have done wonders in repurposing what could be a very sterile (although Florence would probably approve of this description!) interior into several smaller environments or ‘pavilions’ which invite visitors to explore three distinct themes/times in Nightingale’s life. 

Audio hotspots, text panels and display cases in 'The Gilded Cage'
Also well thought out is the construction of a multisensory encounter, where visitors can choose how they engage with material. There are peepholes at differing eye-levels for kids (offering simplified versions of the story) and adults (with documentary photographs to provide sociohistorical context); pull-out drawers and hands-on activities (one literally asks you to put your hands on a doorhandle, then shows you under UV light how many germs you've picked up!); and more traditional arrangements of artefacts and documents in glass vitrines integrated into the wider display. Most cunningly, the heartbeat of the museum is revealed through a series of audio hot spots – linked to specific ideas, innovations and displays, many narrated from Florence’s writings – that you access by placing the chestpiece of a replica vintage stethoscope to the relevant icon. While the earpieces get dreadfully uncomfortable after a while (not to mention having to elbow small children for access to the hotspots!), I was quite content to wear the stethoscope slung around my shoulders as I swaggered around the rest of the museum, channelling my five-year-old self when I received a real stethoscope for my birthday and refused to take it off for days at a time.

Athena the Owl
The three main sections of the museum are visually signalled by the texture of each section’s ‘walls’, giving a tangible means of negotiating the displays. ‘The Gilded Cage’ – constructed like a winding hedge maze (outwardly attractive but wrought with subtle barbs) typical of C19th gardens – deals with Florence’s personal biography, early years and the constraints of social convention on the life of an upper middle-class Victorian woman. Although her father taught her mathematics, which was highly unusual, the family did not approve of her desire to go into nursing. They wanted her to make a good marriage, and she refused to accept any proposals, convinced that this would interfere with her medical calling. Highlights in this section include her childhood writing slate as well as her stuffed pet owl Athena (a hit with children) which accompanied her everywhere until its unfortunate demise. Audio snippets of primary documents provide insight into her strong sense of calling, and her related reluctance to tie the proverbial knot.  I was amused by a small boy who looked up wide-eyed after listening to one of the kids’ audioguide soundbytes and announced with horror/wonder: ‘MUM, did you know, she didn’t want to get MARRIED!’ (that said, he also displayed the same expression at a little display of spices and herbs used as medicines, when I informed him that people actually cook with sage and lemongrass).

Turkish lamp, or 'fanoos' used in Scutari
‘The Calling’ deals with Florence’s work in military hospitals during the Crimean War: its outside is covered in evocative Turkish tiles and its interior tightly bandaged across stretcher frames, as if to suggest the raw reality of medical conditions on the frontline. It includes a number of sobering testimonies and statistics about the lack of sanitary conditions and high death rate: when she arrived at the army hospital in Scutari, soldiers were seven times more likely to die of disease in hospital than on the battlefield. Importantly, it was Florence herself who collected and collated much of the data – often devising new means for its visual depiction (because “it affects(s) thro’ the eyes what we fail to convey to the public through their word-proof ears”) – that would underpin reforms in military and urban hospitals. 

Illustrated London News, 24 Feb, 1855
A Turkish lamp, the kind Florence would have used (rather than the candle or ‘genie’-style lamp she is often depicted with) forms the centrepiece, reminding visitors that her medical reforms were also of a psychological nature, in the unprecedented belief that a kind word, comforting presence and a high regard for a patient’s dignity are also integral to healthcare. This kind of empathy extended to a regard for a patient’s family: far away, missing a son/father/husband/brother, and often struggling in the absence of a main breadwinner. I was particularly moved by the kind letters Florence sent to patients’ spouses and families on their passing, making sure that they received wages and pensions intended for them. This image of the angelic ‘Lady of the Lamp’ would come to dominate public perception, immortalised by the rise of the mass media and the attendant market for celebrity icons and souvenirs (which Florence disdained but which ultimately contributed to her widespread success).  But she was, above all, a stern manager and administrator, tireless advocate for medical reform, and, apparently, an exacting taskmaster – if the nurses' training register (recording a vast number summarily dismissed for ‘incompetence’) is anything to go by!

Bed installation and Florence's writing chest
No smoking! No bubble gum! No paying!
The third section, ‘Reform and Inspire’, recreates an intimate Victorian study and focuses on the vast extent of Florence’s campaigning despite being largely bedridden for twenty years after returning from the Crimea with a chronic illness. In the centre is a contemporary art installation by Susan Stockwell. A Victorian bedframe, with a body’s hollow in its seemingly impressionable bulk, is made up of tightly rolled facsimiles of Nightingale’s prodigious writings (though apparently in the centre the artist reverted to Mills and Boon to fill space), from letters agitating for tenancy reform in India (1878-1882), to the wonderfully terse title Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it is Not (1860). The originals - often translated into several languages - are displayed in cabinets around the bed, along with assorted other Nightingalia. My favourite activity was a pull-out drawer for children to emulate Nightingale's campaigning spirit by writing down what they would like to change in modern society. A younger Amy - truly a child after my own heart - had written, in halting handwriting: 'No smoking', 'No chewing (buble) gum', and the whimsical wish: 'You do not have to pay for things'.

Photograph of Mary Seacole
Binding all the sections together is a circle of light box photographs that runs around the outside of the space and traces Florence Nightingale's legacy in modern nursing. Inset into the series are documentaries which one can sit and watch, in which contemporary practitioners are interviewed about how and why they got into the nursing profession, or – the most fascinating intervention – what it was like to be among the first significant influx of black nurses in England (largely as a result of the post-war wave of immigration from the West Indies).  Also mentioned, though not extensively dealt with in the museum, is the figure of Mary Seacole. Seacole was a Jamaican woman who travelled at her own expense to assist soldiers in the Crimea after being rejected four times by the recruitment offices in London when she applied to go and assist Florence Nightingale. Her work provides an important counterhistory to the dominant narrative of the Nightingale story, and I think it would be in the museum’s best interest – as well as the public’s – to provide a more comprehensive engagement with her in the museum (and not just on their website) at some point in the future.

Well Desmond Tutu liked the museum!
Returning from my visit very positive about the museum, I was surprised to find a number of negative reviews (amongst other very positive ones) on Tripadvisor and similar sites since the museum reopened in 2010 with its new design. Some complain that it is too small for the admission price (though it packs in a lot and you could spend a good two or three hours there if you don’t race through) and the audioguides get a little uncomfortable. But the most ‘disappointed’ reviews seem to take issue with the museum’s nodal rather than linear organisation, and its attempts to engage different audiences in diverse and innovative ways, rather than promoting a singular, authoritative voice (which would be more 'clear'). Here’s a sample:
“They should take away the peepholes and focus on the archive and make it less roundabout and confusing”.
“The sequencing of exhibits is not especially logical”
 “Museum is set out in a room in no particular order”
“There appears to be no arrangement. The Museum is more or less one open-plan area containing many island cabinets, with a lot of fake hedge... and an excessive number of fairly random photographs around the walls. There is no direction or suggested tour, and the cabinets do not appear to be in any order, so it is impossible to gain any sense of intellectual coherence, whether thematic, chronological, geographical or social.”

Visual signalling through texture/medium: foliage, tiles and lightbox images 
Certainly, visitor research suggests that viewers want some measure of structure and guidance, but the arrangement of the Florence Nightingale Museum seemed to me to be clearly signalled both visually and thematically (while avoiding the authoritarian impulse towards linear narratives or a numbered floorplan). It created three self-contained units that nonetheless connected coherently according to Nightingale’s biography: early life, Crimean War as catalyst for medical reform, later life. Thus the kinds of responses I read in many reviews made me wonder: Do audiences need a special kind of ‘visual literacy’ to 'read' today’s museums (and if so, how would we cultivate that)? What kind of interpretative resources and past experiences are expected of a visitor to enable them to engage with more abstract forms of meaning making (e.g. using an enclosed, labyrinthine environment to create a sense of social restrictions in Nightingale’s era)? But these are questions, I think, for another post altogether – so watch this space!

* Nightingale founded the training school at St Thomas' original location in Southwark, and it moved to Lambeth in the 1860s.

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