Kidadl’s essential guide to The Foundling Museum
If you’re looking for a true hidden London gem, look no further. The Foundling Museum traces the history of philanthropist Thomas Coram, who returned to England from America in 1739 and was shocked to discover destitute children living on the streets of London. He set about founding the country’s first children’s charity, The Foundling Hospital, drawing on the generosity of the city’s visionary artists and composers, including Hogarth and Handel, to bring his project to life. Today, his incredible story can be seen through a series of collections and audio tapes on display at The Foundling Museum, showcasing what life was like for the abandoned and unwanted children who lived there. Here’s all you need to know for your visit.
7 things you didn’t know about the Foundling Museum’s history
1. Many people thought the idea to be an impossible task. Thomas Coram found it hard to gain backing for his idea, because at that time, people believed that helping ‘unwanted’ children would encourage promiscuity.
2. It was one of the first institutions to combine fundraising with art. Coram’s friend, the artist William Hogarth, became a founding governor and asked his contemporaries to donate their works of art to display in the Foundling Hospital gallery, turning it into a fashionable and much visited space. People would visit the art gallery and also see the children who lived there – and therefore be persuaded to donate some money.
3. It soon became a platform helping to promote up and coming composers’ careers. Hogarth persuaded another pal, George Frideric Handel, to perform his latest work, Messiah, at the Hospital’s chapel, in a series of benefit concerts to raise money for the cause – Messiah went on to become one of the most popular works of its time.
4. Handel left some of his Messiah score, plus other artefacts and works, to the Foundling Hospital in his will. These can still be seen on display today.
5. Art collector Gerald Coke spent 60 years gathering books, scores, manuscripts and more relating to Handel and his contemporaries, which is now all displayed at the Foundling Museum.
6. Today the Foundling Museum is situated on the original site of the Hospital, in London’s Bloomsbury, and still retains some of the original architectural features. The Foundling Hospital continues to exist as a charity now called Coram.
7. The museum as we know it today was established in 2004 on the Foundling Hospital’s original site, to preserve and display the Foundling Hospital collection and also to look after the Gerald Coke Handel Collection.
Kidadl in the Know
Here are our top tips to help you plan your day out:
When to go:
The museum is closed on Mondays and is open 10am-5pm the rest of the week. Admission for adults is £11, under 21s go free. Look out for the free family events as these often include free admission to the museum.
The nearest Tube station is Russell Square, a 5-minute walk away. Thinking of driving? The closest car park is The Brunswick car park (Marchmont Street), which is a seven-minute walk away.
Is it buggy/wheelchair accessible?
Yes, the museum is totally accessible for all. There are accessible toilets on the ground floor and lower ground floor. There is a lift on all levels – as you enter the foyer you will see the lift directly ahead of you.
Are there baby-changing facilities?
There are baby-changing facilities in the accessible toilets on the ground floor. Walk through the foyer and the toilets are on your left.
Where to eat:
The nearby Brunswick centre (5-minute walk) has a variety of restaurants including Kidadler favourites Giraffe, Carluccio’s and Yo! Sushi.
What Kidadlers say…
Nicole, London mum of three, says: “We went to The Foundling Museum near Russell Square Tube today. There are free workshops running over half term. Next door is the Coram Fields Park and nearby is the Brunswick Centre with lots of places for lunch. An easy day trip out!”
Sarah, mum of two from Barnet, says: “I’d never heard of this Museum until recently and didn’t know what to expect – my 7 and 9 year old were fascinated by the stories of the children who lived in the Foundling Hospital.”
Anna, mum of two from Twickenham, says: “The free events are brilliant – we went to one last half term. No need to book, we just turned up on the day and it also gave us free entry to the rest of the musuem. Fab day out!”
Unmissable items currently on display at the Foundling Museum
As well as regular one-off events, the museum has some fascinating collections on permanent display, charting the story of the Foundling Hospital and what life was like for the children who lived there. Here are some of our favourites:
1. Red Heart Tokens
Babies left at the Foundling Hospital by their mothers each had a swatch of fabric attached to their admission paper – a swatch of the same fabric was given to the baby’s mother, which she would then use to identify her baby when returning. Mothers also left a unique object, eg a coin or a piece of needlework, together with the admission paper – these were sealed until a claim was made. Unfortunately, several unclaimed tokens were put on display in the 19th century, without a record being kept of which unclaimed child they belonged to, so the information has been lost forever.
2. Handel’s will and copy of his Messiah score
It’s a little-known fact that the composer Handel frequently recycled his own music and included his famous Hallelujah Chorus in an anthem he wrote for the Foundling Hospital. The conducting score for this piece can be seen on display today. The Foundling’s chapel was a fantastic platform for Handel’s career – he performed his Messiah there to huge acclaim, and continued to perform there every year. He left a copy of the score to the governors of the Foundling Hospital in his will, allowing them to continue staging the concerts after his death. The score is still on display, alongside Handel’s original will.
3. Sound recordings 1912-1954
Listen to real-life recordings of people who spent time living at the Foundling Hospital as children. The Foundling Voices project recorded interviews with 74 people who grew up in the Hospital, as well as teachers and other people involved with the charity.
4. Artists’ Projects
The Museum invites artists to create installations around the charity’s themes – currently on display is ‘Superman was a Foundling’, by award-winning poet Lemm Sissay, highlighting fictional characters who are fostered, adopted or orphaned. Superman and Harry Potter are just two of many fictional characters that feature in this project, helping to address the gap “between our admiration for fictional characters and a widespread disregard for their real-life counterparts.”
5. Free family-friendly events
Sign up for one of the many free family-friendly workshops at the Foundling Museum and get free entry (usually £11 per adult), meaning you can make a day of it.