Dea Birkett

The Florence Nightingale museum has been abandoned

The Florence Nightingale museum has been abandoned
(Photo: Getty)
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The Florence Nightingale Museum is unwell. Just as the government announced that Nightingale hospitals were being ‘reactivated’ to cope with the surge in coronavirus cases, the museum’s Director David Green also had something important to say. To prevent the museum becoming financially insolvent, their galleries are closing indefinitely. Any attempt to reopen in the coming months would just be ‘prolonging the inevitable’.

I hope the Prime Minister is aware of this irony. He’s certainly keen to highlight the Lady with the Lamp’s legacy. The museum is housed at St Thomas’ Hospital directly over the river from Westminster, and on the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth her image was projected in lights across the Houses of Parliament. On International Nurses Day, Johnson said her spirit ‘lies in the remarkable women and men she continues to inspire today,’ calling the Covid-19 nurses ‘today’s Nightingales’. He even claims to own a Florence Nightingale facemask.

But for all these boasts about Britain’s medical heritage, this government shows little interest in offering any life support to the museums that preserve it.

In many ways, museums like the Nightingale have done everything the government has asked of them. Ninety-five per cent of the Nightingale Museum’s income comes through the front door and over half of their visitors are from abroad. Johnson has preached commercialism alongside the worth of international tourism in the cultural sector. The Nightingale Museum successfully achieved both, with very little reliance on public funding. But with around £400,000 per year running costs, and no income after lockdown, they had no choice but to shut. 

These losses could have been avoided if the government’s tardiness, which it has displayed in many areas during the pandemic, wasn’t evident in cultural funding too. The Nightingale Museum received £137,000 from the £1.57 billion first round Cultural Recovery Fund last year, but it was announced too late to prevent redundancies.

Like the Nightingale Museum, Dr Edward Jenner’s House Museum, home of the inventor of the vaccine, was also buoyant pre-Covid, after securing funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. And like the Nightingale, its namesake is often evoked by a Prime Minister eager to promote Britain’s history of scientific invention. At last year’s Global Vaccine Summit, Johnson praised ‘the ingenuity of Edward Jenner, a British doctor from Gloucestershire who pioneered the world’s first vaccine, the simple act of inoculating our children can save lives many times over.’ He frequently brings up Jenner in press conferences.

But this museum, too, is poorly. With income coming almost entirely from tickets sales and visitor donations, even one month’s closure is a challenge. So last Spring, the Museum resorted to crowdfunding and, after ‘an outpouring of support from around the world,’ says Director Owen Gower, raised over £45,000.

But that’s where irony is heaped upon irony. The fact that they’d been so successful counted against them. The Cultural Recovery Fund was only intended for organisations under threat of closure within three months. With a modest annual budget of around £75,000, Dr Jenner’s House could keep going until the autumn. So they couldn’t apply.

Under a government that places such emphasis on self-reliance and sustainability, small museums such as these should be praised for their business acumen. Instead, they’re being punished for being clever and coping. The heavily subsidised mighty national museums, with direct DCMS funding, can be confident they won’t be allowed to fail. No Culture Secretary would let the Tate or the Natural History Museum fold on his watch. But there are around 40 small medical museums, scattered throughout the country, which can be sacrificed to Covid-19 and be allowed to close. ‘It’s quite bizarre given that this is the time when we’re most relevant,’ says Gower.

The second round of the Cultural Recovery Fund, which opened last week, demonstrates the Government’s shortsightedness still further. At a webinar last Friday, Arts Council England officers squirmed awkwardly as they outlined how the Fund presumes non-socially distanced activity will begin by 1 July. Among the over 1000 participants, none believed that would be possible. ‘No one's going to flick a switch on 30 June,’ says Green. ‘There’s no point having a plan that everything will be alright when it’s not.’ Although a shot in the arm now is helpful, these museums need long-term investment. ‘We’re not interested in the next couple of months. It’s not only about emergency funding. We need funding for the next five to ten years,’ says Gower. ‘It’s one thing to talk about Edward Jenner and it's another to try and support that heritage and put these words in to action.’ Green hopes once the crisis is over, ‘Government will be ready for conversations about how important medical museums are.’

Unless Government starts to put support where its speeches are, and help save these small medical museums, they’ll stay closed indefinitely. Then it won’t only be lives and livelihoods that our lost during the pandemic, but a historical understanding of why. As Gower says, ‘When things are a little bit more normal, we’re here to tell the story of what happened.’