Friday, 30 January 2015

Florence Nightingale Museum

2 Lambeth Palace Road,
London SE1 7EW
Wednesday January 29th 2015

Reaching this museum on public transport could not be easier, nestling as it does just below Westminster Bridge on the south side. There are copious signposts round St Thomas’s (and Guy’s) Hospital which lead you down to what passes for a car park/delivery area below ground level, and this is indeed a museum without natural light – good for conservation I guess. It is also sufficiently small that I am sure it attracts patients or patients’ relatives who may have an hour or so to spare between tests.

 Today the Museum was playing host to a lively Primary School brought to heel by a ‘Nightingale‘ clothed education officer…  I had last visited some 20 years ago when it was 2 rows of glass cases so it was refreshing  to find it had been re-configured into three information ‘pods’ .
It starts with ‘The Gilded Cage’, which is how Florence viewed her own privileged upbringing , in this case portrayed by a very vivid imitation box hedge set about with the odd rose bower. The larger exhibits are in glass display cases with contextual photos to be viewed through small spy-glass windows into the hedge – probably easier if a child as set quite low, and also awkward for spectacle wearers. There are also several head-sets offering aural accounts of Florence’s early life, travels and friendships.
‘Florence’ is now such an accepted girl’s name that we forget that her parents, made wealthy through family ownership of lead-mines, had named her after the Italian city where she was born. Had it been her sister ‘called to do good works’ would Parthenope (the Greek for Naples) have become as popular? Her parents’ honeymoon was an extensive affair which took them round Europe and Italy for some years. The girls were home-educated in languages but their father also introduced them to maths, which was unusual for women to learn, and Florence clearly benefitted by having a mind that could assess ‘supply and demand’ and translate this into figures. The sisters travelled widely through Europe and North Africa along with friends, the Bracebridges, who would  prove to be friends with influence in later life.

Life must have seemed quite boring once she returned from her travels and in 1837 Florence said she received a sign from God that she needed to serve. Always aware of the poor her initial plan was to start nursing at the nearby Salisbury Infirmary but such was the family opposition that she could not follow through; her father forbade it and mother and sister also had negative and emotional responses. Florence herself went into something of a ‘decline’ (?depression). The reason for the opposition was that respectable women did not nurse at that time – the image of the nurse then was something between a ‘camp follower’ (following ‘you man’ into battle but then more widely available for the troops) and a drunken ineffective spinster – rather in the image of Dickens’ Mrs. Gamp. Later she was allowed to go to Germany to join a Protestant convent where they did community nursing.

The second pod of the museum, covered in a wonderful array of good imitation Iznik tiles, records her progress through the Crimean conflict, one of the first overseas wars to be fully reported back home. And the reports, courtesy of TH Russell of The Times told of a casualty toll that owed more to disease than death on the battlefield. So Sidney Herbert, friend of the Bracebridges, called on Florence to look to what was happening. Meanwhile the young Brunel (**more of him next week) went out and built an Army hospital – now does this remind you of the British Army and other response to the current Ebola outbreak? – while Florence set off with her little bag of quinine and anti-diarrhoea medication with 38 other nurses. And the Bracebridges.

Once out there she found darkness (and sorted out a safety oil lamp), squalor (each nurse to have a bar of carbolic), disorder (she ordered beds/bedding) and poor food (she made sure the men had adequate nutrition by calling on Alexis Soyer to cater and to devise a safe stove) and generally brought things into order.  She provided the nurses with a uniform with a sash clearly displaying their job and it is upon these managerial skills that her reputation is appropriately founded. She called herself a ‘general dealer and storekeeper’ and had the strength of character and conviction to get what she needed out of the Army and government.   Florence also became a reluctant celebrity and although she refused to sit for any portraits – not least the famous image of her receiving the troops at Scutari – that did not stop the burgeoning British ceramics industry memorialising her in a variety of statuettes/candle holders, imitation lanterns and the like. She is reputed to have hated what she called the ‘buzz fuzz’ of all this though she did agree to sit for a bust by Steell as it was paid for by the soldiers.

The third pod – more soberly decked out as a series of wooden filing cabinets – documents her work (and to a lesser extent her life) following her return from the Crimea. A Fund had been set up in her name which she used to establish the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas’ as they were sympathetic to her cause. She was very clear as to what was needed for nurses to learn and practise and how hospitals should be set up. She was a great believer in fresh air and cleanliness (soap) and felt this should be extended to family homes also. Her beliefs were so strong that she could not at first accept that cholera might be caused by polluted water rather than ‘miasma’ (bad air) and such was her influence it delayed progress on the provision of adequate sewerage. Florence wrote more than 800 assorted books and pamphlets as well as extensive and  varied correspondence. This third pod looks at her reforming zeal and legacy into the First World War using Edith Cavell as a prime example of a Nightingale-trained nurse. It also looks at her later life, punctuated by illness and accompanied by cats lived out near the old family home, depicted now in the new 'medium' of photographs.  

(Jo and I were somewhat surprised to see Edith Cavell’s dog, so long a mainstay exhibit at the Imperial war Museum has now taken up residence ‘centre pod’ so to speak! )

The legacy, her legacy, is depicted in a frieze of photos/posters/book covers round the entire room including the older styles of ward management and patient care, alongside the new.   Florence was often criticized for not supporting Women’s Suffrage or the vote and equally the Museum does not actually address the power balance in the relationship between doctor and nurse.  The photos are interspersed with ‘talking heads’, one of whom points out that often the greatest advances in medicine are made during major conflicts.

Florence Nightingale was surely a more complex person than presented here but the Museum does an excellent job in showing her undoubted gifts of organisation analysis, innovation and persistence all of which combined to make a heroine in her own time, a role model for generations and the founder of modern nursing and management.

PS Wellcome Images come free  for non-commercial use from their digital image library.

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