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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Getting cosy with academics: The Fallen Woman at the Foundling Museum

Across the sector there has been a trend towards greater involvement from academics in museums and museum exhibitions. Generally, we are a bit suspicious of this – as museum professionals we think those who have actually worked with collections and understand professional standards should be essential in all museum functions. So when we heard the Foundling Museum has opened an exhibition with art historian and academic Lynda Nead as its curator, we were curious to see how it would turn out. And we were pleasantly surprised by what we found…

We love the Foundling Museum. It’s one of those small London museums that just goes to show the fantastic diversity of institutions available in the city beyond the big names. Honestly, whenever I see those little tokens left by mothers giving up their children it makes me tear up. If you haven’t been, the museum is worth a visit just for their permanent display – which is beautifully curated and does an excellent job of blending the Foundling Hospitals long history with its current mission. We love their use of oral history and contemporary art responses in particular.

Head down to the basement to find their modest exhibition space. The Fallen Woman may not be big, but it packs a punch. First of all, while there isn’t much room for text, what is provided is intelligent and to the point. As one of the authorities on women in the Victorian public space, Nead is able to quickly summarise and relate the historical context of the exhibition. While I expected her academic background to mean the text went about over the visitor’s head, actually it was thoughtful and intelligent: clear without dumbing down. Of course it also helps that this isn’t an exhibition geared towards younger audiences so they have a big more wiggle room from a serious historical take on the subject matter.

Names of the women whose petitions were used in the exhibition
I was also pleasantly surprised at the mix of materials on display. While paintings and engravings come to the fore, photographs and archival documents also play a role. Actually, as a historian, Nead is able to acknowledge and integrate the paper-based tools of the trade of history alongside the art: something that specialist art curators often over look. The letters and applications of the women to the Foundling Hospital are how we know about the experience of the individuals who needed the Hospital most, so why should they not also be included?

A sound installation fills the entire gallery with an eerie whispering music. I had thought this was just for effect, but as you enter the last room you realise these voices actually serve a purpose. The work of sound art is intended to bring the voices of the silenced, forgotten women into the space, with actors reading from the historical texts in the cases before you. Some people are really critical about sound installations: what is it really providing aside from a slightly spooky effect. Personally I think it would have been more effective if you could actually hear what the women were saying, rather than just disembodied and jumbled up phrases. But the symbolism really works with the overall theme of the exhibition, and the accompanying music gets you in an open emotional space for viewing the art works.

Expecting to be critical of the exhibition, I was blown away with what Nead and the Foundling Museum team have been able to achieve. Sensitive, intelligent, and moving; The Fallen Woman demonstrates all the positive aspects of getting an academic historian involved in an exhibition, but clearly with some effective guidance from museum colleagues. Text is legible, clear, and aimed at the right level. Beautiful art works are mixed with fascinating historical documents. Plenty of big text print outs and further explanations are provided so you can get as involved with the subject matter as you like. And the sound installation adds an extra level to an otherwise quite small space. Fallen Women goes to show how well an exhibition can be done with an academic historian- bringing a detailed knowledge of the period as well as the variety of material culture that can be employed.  

The Fallen Woman is on at the Foundling Museum until the 3rd of January. 

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