On 12 May 2020 it was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, nursing pioneer and icon of the Crimean War. Events to mark the milestone had been planned all over the world, and the Lambeth-based museum dedicated to Nightingale’s life and work had organised a special exhibition. Of course, 2020 would take a rather different turn, and the COVID-19 pandemic saw these celebrations, like most other plans, shelved. The Florence Nightingale Museum itself closed for almost two years – but in May 2022 it welcomed the public back once more.
As you enter the museum, tucked within the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, you are met by a stained-glass window depicting the nurse, which was recently discovered in a store at Guy’s Hospital, also in Southwark. Its saintly imagery highlights the legendary status that Florence Nightingale holds in the popular imagination – but, as the other displays eloquently demonstrate, she was a much more complex and interesting individual than a romantic ‘angel of mercy’.
The museum’s displays are cleverly organised into different sections. A spiral of artificial hedges filled with birdsong is home to objects relating to Nightingale’s idyllic early years, her comfortable upper-middle-class childhood spent moving between her parents’ two country houses and in exotic trips abroad. She was, unusually, given as good an education as any boy of her time and class, learning Latin, modern languages, and mathematics, and cases containing books about natural history and languages, and collections of coins, shells, and seeds, reflect a studious, deeply religious girl who used a Hebrew grammar book to help her read the Bible. Yet the maze-like layout also emphasises the limitations placed on young women like Nightingale; she was expected to make a good marriage, and it was with great difficulty that she persuaded her parents of her vocation to nursing – at the time, a working-class profession. Lively insights into her personality also come from a pennant that she made from a petticoat to adorn the boat that she and friends sailed down the Nile; and the taxidermied body of Athena, an owlet that she ‘rescued’ at the Acropolis in Athens, and who became her constant companion.
The space dedicated to the Crimean War is particularly effective in its design: its outer wall is adorned with colourful tiles that vividly evoke Istanbul, while the inside is a striking contrast of wooden crates and cases bound with bandages. There you can see the medicine chest that Nightingale took with her to the Scutari military hospital; her dispatch case; and even a lantern that she carried during her rounds – not the picturesque little ‘genie’ lamp that she is often depicted with, but a robustly cylindrical Turkish fanoos.
In another section of the museum we meet Nightingale the writer and social reformer. She frequently marshalled her skills in statistical analysis to support her campaigns, and she was elected the first female fellow of the Statistical Society of London – though her certificate, displayed in this space, uses male pronouns, highlighting the novelty of her admission.
The area dedicated to the final years of Nightingale’s life, when she was beset by chronic illness, is poignantly set up like her bedroom. Its displays are powerfully personal – you can smell her favourite perfume and listen to a recording of her voice, alongside intimate objects like her gold cross pendant.
At the back of the museum, the bicentennial exhibition (above) is now up and running, exploring Nightingale’s life and legacy to great effect through an eclectic mix of 200 objects, people, and places. These include the £10 note that, between 1975 and 1992, bore Nightingale’s image; a commemorative Barbie doll; Japanese manga comics, and a recipe for fish with spiced rice, dedicated to ‘la Soeur Nightingale’, that Queen Victoria’s chef created, inspired by the nurse’s reputed love of curry. The fact that the exhibition was delayed by a pandemic makes its themes all the more resonant and relevant.
The Florence Nightingale Museum is open 10am-5pm Wednesday-Sunday. www.florence-nightingale.co.uk