Like many UK independent museums, the Florence Nightingale Museum is struggling with a catastrophic loss of visitor income during the Covid-19 pandemic
At a time when the lives of millions of people the world over have been placed in the hands of health workers, and the value of nurses has never been clearer, the museum telling the story of the ‘mother of modern nursing’ and the people following in her footsteps says it is in a fight for survival.
The plight of the small museum on London’s South Bank dedicated to Florence Nightingale, who many regard as the founder of modern nursing, is facing an uncertain future.
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It is a story being played out in many independent museums across the UK as the Covid-19 pandemic forces many – from the largest to the smallest – to struggle in the face of crippling losses of income from visitors, events and retail sales.
The Florence Nightingale Museum says it is reliant on visitors for around 95% of its income, with more than half of them coming from overseas.
Opened in 1989 and sitting in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, the Museum looks beyond the mythical ‘Lady with the Lamp’ tale to present a fully-rounded picture of Florence Nightingale, who rose to fame as the pioneering and reforming nurse during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856).
Her work at the Scutari Hospital transformed nursing, saved the lives of hundreds of wounded soldiers, and made her into a kind of public figurehead for the nursing profession, for which she tirelessly campaigned until her passing in 1910 at the of age of 90.
Visitors can see an impressive collection of iconic personal objects ranging from her writing desk and watch to her medicine chest and even her pet owl, Athena, which she rescued when it fell from its nest as a tiny owlet at the Parthenon in Athens in 1850.
The medicine chest was taken by Nightingale to the Crimean War and still contains medicines such as quinine to treat malaria and carbonate of potassium for fever. It also contains a tiny set of scales and measures, and a glass beaker for measuring the liquids in the chest, some of which can be highly toxic if taken inappropriately.
The museum is also in possession of Nightingale’s famous lamp, or fanoos, which is a Turkish-style lantern understood to have been carried on her nightly rounds of the wards in Scutari during the war. The image of her holding such a lamp gave rise to the legend ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, although artists often mistakenly showed her holding a Greek or “genie” lamp instead, which only added to the sentimental image and her growing celebrity in Victorian Britain.
But as well as caring for a fascinating collection and exploring the life and work of the best-known figure in nursing history, the museum also celebrates nursing today and throughout history, telling the stories of such key figures as British-Jamaican nurse and businesswoman, Mary Seacole and Kofoworola Abeni Pratt, the first black nurse to work in the NHS.
Sadly, since March 2020, visitor numbers have reduced to such an extent that the museum says it is not feasible for it to re-open and will stay closed for the foreseeable future – even when the restrictions are lifted.
Despite generous support from individual donors, as well as the Art Fund, Arts Council England, and National Heritage Lottery Fund, the museum is now entering a major review and restructuring of its operations including a “period of consultation with staff”, in response to the damaging and continuing effects of the pandemic.
The museum says the review is “designed to protect the collections and the institution for the long term”, and if changes are not made now, they run the very real risk of becoming “financially insolvent” before markets recover and visitors return in significant numbers.
“The events of the past year have been devastating for so many,” says Museum Director David Green. “From our own perspective, to go from the furious activity and high visitor numbers of the early months of 2020, to instant desolation was a major blow, especially as this all happened during Florence’s bicentenary year and the World Health Organisation’s Year of the Nurse and Midwife.”
When the museum was first forced to close in March 2020, its new exhibition, Nightingale in 200 Objects, People & Places, was just ten days into its run. The closure curtailed all plans and the extended lockdown, and slow return to normality, has placed it at risk of permanent closure.
“Since March 2020, we have explored every avenue and resource available to us in order to keep the museum operating,” adds Green. “Throughout this turbulent time, we have received so much wonderful support from the museum’s visitors, as well as all manner of arts organisations, not to mention the dedicated and tenacious work of our staff.
“Now, the need for changes to the museum’s operation is vital to ensure that it has a future, particularly as it is extremely likely that the situation is unlikely to improve significantly for many months.”
The ‘consultation’ with unfortunate staff members is now underway with redundancies – despite the government’s furlough scheme – highly likely.
Sadly, these difficult decisions and conversations are increasingly likely in many more museums as 2021 shapes up to be a difficult year for the UK’s independent museums.
Florence Nightingale Museum
London, Greater London
Discover the woman behind the legend. Did you know? * Florence Nightingale did not want to become famous and disliked sitting for portraits or photographs * She struggled for years to persuade her parents to let her become a nurse * As well as caring for people, she loved animals…