What?: Wow. This is one seriously underrated museum. I knew about it long before we embarked on our Bablands adventure but didn’t really care enough to go until my friend presented me with a list of places she can get into for free with her mum’s magical museum card. Ok so the magical card didn’t get me in for free, but sometimes the promise of adult company is the only kick up the arse I need to make me visit something I’d previously have dismissed as not that exciting. The thing is though, this place is really exciting. I mean, sure, it’s quite small, but it’s so perfectly formed and crammed full of info and things to do you’ll barely notice or care.
The museum underwent a £1.4m refurbishment a decade ago and still feels fresh today. It’s split into two sections: the immersive Spanish Flu exhibition and the permanent collection, with areas covering Nightingale’s life, the Victorians, the Crimean War, nurses Mary Seacole and Edith Cavill, cook Alexis Soyer, and a bit about modern-day nursing with a little family corner. The family corner was the thing we clocked first on entering the main exhibition space (that and the amazing tiled wall), and the kids were very keen to get stuck into the dress-up rail, which offers a pretty comprehensive selection of nursing uniforms from Nightingale’s era through to the modern day. Babu chose a very heavy yellow embroidered dress while her little mate went for a blue and white stripy number with a pinny and sash. These were worn for the duration of our visit, which upped the cuteness factor tenfold – although I did feel a bit guilty seeing how filthy Babu’s got with all the running around she did.
The museum is really cleverly arranged and – we thought – great for toddlers, in spite of some of the subject matter obviously going completely over their heads. There’s plenty of stuff in their eye line, from peep-holes to view films and photographs through to audio with child-height headphones and interactive games, including a bird flu-themed velcro ball game – all great for keeping them engaged and nice when you’re used to doing your back in lifting them up whilst also having a baby bound to your breast. Obviously they spent most of our visit chasing each other around the museum – I mean, they are three – but this was definitely less stressful than usual thanks to the compact size of the museum and the fact that it was almost empty, despite it being the summer holidays. There may have been a few raised eyebrows but I am so past caring about those.
My favourite bit of the museum was probably the temporary Spanish Flu exhibition, partly because I’m a bit morbid but mostly because I’m a sucker for an immersive experience. On arrival at the museum we were each given one of four different scratchcards that we were then prompted to scratch at various points around the exhibition to reveal our Georgian character’s fate – a concept that was perhaps slightly lost on the toddlers and maybe a bit dark given that some of them obviously succumbed to the virus, but I still thought it was such a great touch.
The exhibition itself consisted of a large room with hospital beds in the middle, onto which information about the epidemic and images of the sick (not graphic, don’t worry) were projected. Every so often the lights would dip and UV paint and lighting would reveal the spread of the virus around the room – which was actually hideous even though it wasn’t real. As well as showing a film on loop, the space contained various displays of information, photography and artefacts, including an old photo of a family all wearing their surgical masks – cat included – which was my favourite thing ever.
Other best bits included the stuffed animals – Jack the hero dog, who was shot by firing squad for helping PoWs to escape (sob), and Florence’s owl Athena (Babu’s real name) – which always seem to be a hit with small children for some reason; the chalkboard word game that the kids didn’t understand at all since they can’t read or write yet but that kept them amused for ages regardless, and the lovely pile of nursing-themed books in the family corner that rounded off our visit.
Where and When?: The museum can be found on the site of St Thomas’s Hospital on Lambeth Palace Road, and is an eight-minute walk from Waterloo Station. It’s open from 10am-5pm every day.
Best Bits: Just so well designed and really interactive.
Worst Bits: It doesn’t have a cafe.
Facilities: Baby changing, step-free access.
Cost: £8 for adults, free for under-5s.
Would We Come Back?: Yes! We’ll be back for the Nightingale 2020 centenary exhibition in the new year.
Babu the nurse at the Florence Nightingale Museum, Westminster.