London: Florence Nightingale Museum

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In carrying on with my newfound habit of paying to visit London museums (because I’ve exhausted most of the free options, not because I’m rolling in the dough, because I am still completely broke.  If any museums would like to give me a free ticket, it would be much appreciated!), I went to the Florence Nightingale Museum, which set me back 7 quid.  You all probably know by now how much I love medical history, but I had put off visiting Florence’s museum as I’d always thought of her as an unpleasant old biddy, moaning about the modern world from the comfort of her bed.  On reflection, however, that is not dissimilar from what I do (although not being an invalid, I usually at least park my ass on the couch to write these things), so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on her.

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The museum, at least, was not at all what I was expecting.  I don’t know why, but I imagined it as being a musty old attic stuffed with taxidermy and medical apparatuses, kind of like the Old Operating Theatre (and since that’s what I genuinely pictured, it makes it even more perplexing that I hadn’t already visited, since that is exactly the kind of thing I love), but it’s actually in a nondescript (I’m being nice here, honestly, it’s ugly) building on the edge of St Thomas’s Hospital, that looks more like a parking garage than a museum.   Inside though, is another story, as they’ve managed to completely transform the small space.

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The room was set up in three “pavilions,” each a circular space covering a different part of Florence’s life.  It actually felt similar to a Bompas and Parr installation I went to a few years ago (and I mean this in a good way); something about all the fake grass and sound effects I guess.  This set-up is quite useful for people like me who always seem to end up walking around a museum the wrong way, since as long as you visit the pavilions in the correct order (and they even give you a map), you can’t screw things up too badly (though I think I still managed to walk around one of them in the wrong direction; in my defence, I’ve always been rubbish at reading maps).  I started with the grassy one, which had birdsong in the background, and was about Florence’s early life.

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Though I was already aware of Florence’s privileged upbringing, I did not know that she nearly married a sadist (not in terms of his personality, as he remained her good friend throughout his life, but sexually) – the Lord Houghton, pictured above, who apparently was a huge fan of the Marquis de Sade, and had an enormous pornography collection.  This section also held the object I was most looking forward to seeing (and probably the reason I was expecting all kinds of taxidermy), Florence’s pet little owl (that is actually what they’re called, and she was indeed quite small) Athena, who was adorable.

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The next section was all about Florence making a name for herself during the Crimean War, and becoming known as the “Lady with the Lamp” (yes, they had a lamp there that she was meant to have carried, it’s in the left corner of the second picture above).  These walls were decked out in blue and white Islamic style tiles and bandages, and this “pavilion” had a good selection of various medical implements and other items used during her time in the Crimea.  Interestingly, although Florence and her handpicked crew of nurses worked tirelessly with the soldiers, suffering through crappy conditions and ugly uniforms (I’m only being a bit facetious here, they REALLY hated their uniforms), the death rates actually rose after their arrival, as this was a good twenty years before germ theory, and the hospital was built over a cesspool.  It was only when a proper drainage system was installed that the mortality rates declined.

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There were also some figurines and other objets d’art made to commemorate her service during the war, items that Florence herself hated.  She was not at all a fan of the attention lavished on her, as she would rather the energy go to improving conditions for soldiers and training more nurses.  She did agree to sit for a portrait and a photograph at Queen Victoria’s request, but otherwise wasn’t keen.  It probably didn’t help that she had picked up a long-lasting bug in the Crimea, making her extra-cranky and bed-bound much of the time (probably brucellosis, though the jury is still out).

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The final section was about this last part of Florence’s life, when she became a medical crusader and writer, despite not being able to personally go out and do much herself.  It was made of up cabinets, some of which had drawers that opened, and included a couple of her dresses, and an impressive gathering of pictures of her (considering her reluctance to pose for them), which showed how much she aged during the war, and her progress towards becoming a rather plump old lady (she lived to be 90, which is remarkable given the state of her health).  There was also a special exhibition on, about nursing during WWI, in a small annex off the main room, with a few informational signs and pictures – this was interesting, but could easily be seen in just a few minutes.

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Though the museum was small, and perhaps not worth 7 pounds, I do give them a lot of credit for the layout, which was clever and fun, and made exploring the museum feel like a bit of an adventure (and also helped to make things more private, as the other visitors were usually hidden behind walls – always a plus for this misanthrope)!  I managed to learn a few new things about Florence, and I did love cute little Athena, since I’m a total sucker for owls.  I will say that there is no pleasant way of getting to this museum, which is not really their fault, but: I decided to walk there from Waterloo, as it’s sort of between Waterloo, Lambeth North, and Westminster.  I don’t think I’d ever turned left on York Road before, but it is a hideous street, full of car rental places.  When I left the museum, I walked up to Westminster instead, as it seemed closer, but that involved crossing Westminster Bridge, which was so full of slow-moving American tourists that I wanted to scream.  They were all taking pictures of Big Ben whilst sticking a hand out towards it.  Is that a thing I’m not aware of, like pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa?  I don’t know, whatever they were doing, it was annoying, and they need to move their asses out of the way.

So maybe I am kind of like Florence, only without having accomplished anything, which I suppose gives me even less right to complain than she had (but doesn’t mean I’m going to stop).  Judging by the fact that all the other visitors appeared to be American tourists when I was there, I think this place does a fairly good job of picking up some of the spillover tourist trade from Westminster, which is probably what the ticket prices are geared towards.  Enjoyable, and better in many ways than I was expecting, but I’m not convinced it’s worth the price of admission.  3/5


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