Sitting just opposite the entrance to the Accident & Emergency Department at St Thomas’ Hospital in central London is the city’s only museum dedicated specifically to one woman, a very special woman. It’s the Florence Nightingale Museum.
The museum comprises one large room, and is organised into three sections. First is a circular ‘hedge maze’ where her early life is explored and some of her personal journals and other items are on display. Here visitors will discover that she had a privileged background, growing up in a fine home in the country with a sister to whom she was very close. She could, like most of her contemporaries, have had a comfortable life as the wife of a similarly well-off Victorian gentleman however she took an interest in nursing from a very early age. She even went so far as to include trips to hospitals as part of the Grand Tour which she and her family took around Europe in 1838.
The museum’s second section, which is made up of attractive patterned tiles meant to evoke her time in the Crimea, looks at the work that Florence Nightingale did to improve conditions at the Scutari Hospital and the fund that was established to support her and her nursing staff. Also noted here is the work of Scottish engineer Dr John Sutherland who made repairs to the building so that sewage was properly disposed of and a clean water supply provided. In her later years Nightingale insisted that the many lives which had been saved were the result of a team effort – perhaps in response to the heavy publicity during the 1850s which had painted her as a singular heroine, “the lady with the lamp“.
The museum’s final area recounts Nightingale’s later life working to improve nursing practices – amongst the displays are a stack of the many books that she published on the subject. Also figuring in this section is another nurse – Edith Cavell. Matron of a Belgian Hospital, she was recruited to a resistance cell at the start of the First World War. Helping over 200 soldiers escape to freedom, she was eventually captured, tortured and executed by the German secret police in October 1915. Inexplicably you can also look at Cavell’s dog, Jack – on loan from the Imperial War Museum he’s stuffed and set in a glass case opposite the display dedicated to his mistress…
Just in closing, the Victorian propaganda surrounding her nursing endeavours in the Crimea ensured that Florence Nightingale would forever be remembered as a benevolent, caring woman however her true legacy is of genuine historical importance. She was responsible for implementing the first proper training programme for nurses, which would ultimately lead to nursing being seen as a serious profession. The nursing school which she established at St Thomas’s Hospital remained on the site until 1996 – today the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery is based out of Kings College, and continues to train student nurses from across the world every year.
Admission to the Florence Nightingale Museum is £7.50 for adults – concessions are £4.80 and the price for children is £3.80.