Museum stories: How the Foundling Museum have been a lifeline for locals through lockdown

04/02/2021

We hope you’ve been enjoying hearing from some of the museums we’ve been able to help so far.

This week Caro Howell, director of the Foundling Museum in London, tells us how they sprung into action during the first national lockdown to keep children, families and vulnerable people connected to art and creativity.

Located on the site of the former Foundling Hospital, which was established in 1739 to care for babies at risk of abandonment, the museum tells the story of the UK’s first children’s charity and continues its mission to transform disadvantaged children’s lives through art.

With funding from Art Fund, the museum will be able to expand on the amazing work they carried out during lockdown and keep strengthening their relationship with the local community.

By donating to #TogetherForMuseums, you’re helping many more museums across the UK make projects like these a reality. Thank you.


‘Our work is very much split down the middle. We have the shop window, which is our exhibitions and displays, and the engine under the hood, which is the continuing tradition established in the 18th century of having inspiring artists working alongside very vulnerable and marginalised young people.

We have partnerships with a number of local nurseries and primary schools. The programmes run over a year, looking to close the attainment gap for children facing multiple disadvantages. During lockdown, we were filming creative workshops with artists and musicians and then putting them up on a private YouTube channel. Teachers could use them in the classroom for the children of key workers and send them on to parents where suitable.

We had lovely quotes from the teachers, who were genuinely glad to have creative work going on for the children.

We also run a programme for young adults who have grown up in care, training them to help lead and run our family programme. We were very concerned because they were living in hostels and bedsits, and most of them didn’t have internet access or smartphones, only ‘pay as you go’ contracts. A lot of it was just being on the phone to them, keeping their spirits up and making sure that they were speaking to people. But then we developed a way of getting them to film themselves taking families through an activity that they had previously run at the museum. We were able to put these on the website for families to do at home in lockdown, and it was a way of keeping [the care leavers] motivated, enabling them to feel connected with the outside world, and something to feel proud of.’

© Foundling Museum

‘We have another project with our young care leavers, some of our volunteers, many of whom are widowed or living alone, and some of the former pupils of the Foundling Hospital, who are elderly and very isolated. The three groups worked with an artist to create sound pieces and digital films of themselves talking about the artwork that means most to them in the museum. We were able to teach some people how to use Zoom by printing out written instructions. For others who didn’t have computers, we sent high-resolution pictures of the artworks they’d chosen and chatted to them on the phone.

It was about finding ways to keep people who were facing real isolation connected to us, to each other, and to art. This work will now join our core interpretation [materials at the museum and online], and we can share it with audiences once people come back.’

Halloween T-shirt making © Foundling Museum

‘Like anything seismic, [the pandemic] has thrown up opportunities to think differently. There are systemic inequalities and problems on our doorstep, and this is an opportunity for us to put more investment into our local community. [The Art Fund grant,] through funding a community engagement coordinator, has enabled us to do that.

It’s still vital for us that children have face-to-face contact with the work in our collection and feel familiar with the building, but what lockdown has shown us is that we can also deliver equally rewarding and imaginative art and music workshops in the classroom digitally. We can expand this out to young people in the local community more widely and engage them in their places of meeting, be that secondary schools, youth clubs or other community-based spaces. Our young care-experienced trainees will be able to think about programmes that we can start delivering to their own peer group.

Our guiding principle at the museum is ‘inch-wide, mile-deep’ – it’s not about numbers, it’s about effecting real and lasting change. Now it might be ‘two inches wide, mile-deep’. These exciting opportunities aren’t going to be a flash in the pan. They are now part of our new business plan and long-term approach.

Art Fund have been such a great support because they manage to be creative and pragmatic at the same time, based on a deep understanding of the way museums work and a genuine desire to be the support they need. I hope by extension Art Fund members and donors feel they too are part of this process of renewal and really are in partnership with us. We will only get through all of this together as communities.’


Explore the Foundling Museum.

Thank you for supporting #TogetherForMuseums – and if you haven’t already donated, please do take a look at the rewards on offer and learn more about the campaign.

Your support will help museums respond to the challenges of Covid-19, and reimagine a brighter future.

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