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TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE- Behind the Scenes in London's Museums PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Sobell & Richard N. Every Creative Syndicate   
Thursday, 06 September 2012 01:55


Clos Maggiore is one of London’s most romantic restaurants.

Life in 18th-century London for anyone but families with a lot of money wasn't easy, especially for women. Modern birth control had not yet been invented, and servant girls whose masters fathered their children were simply turned out of the household. We learned these facts and more when we discovered three small attractions offering behind-the-scenes looks at London society.

The Foundling Museum

"Dear Sir, could you please let me know if my baby admitted on 18 July is well. How many teeth does he have? I have a little book that I keep account of him until his first birthday. I have a little stuffed rabbit and want to send it but don't know where. Hoping to hear good news."

That good news never came. In the 1700s, an illegitimate pregnancy invariably meant loss of employment, poverty or prostitution and eventually the workhouse for mother and baby. Pregnant women felt they had no choice but to abandon their babies and hope for the best. With 1,000 infants left to perish of hunger and exposure each year, the streets of London became a cemetery of tiny corpses.

For a small group of infants that changed in 1741. With support from artist William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel, philanthropist Thomas Coram raised sufficient funds to establish the Foundling Hospital.

Now called the Foundling Museum, it tells the story of the 20,000 babies who passed through its doors from 1741 to 1954. Rotating exhibits feature the tokens mothers left in hopes of reclaiming their babies later, oral histories, photographs, letters and even the re-creation of the hospital's interior.

For the first five years of their lives, foundlings were fostered out to community families. When they returned, they enjoyed extraordinary advantages for the period — a good diet, vaccination against smallpox, health care, basic education and apprenticeship to a trade. Because the hospital was considered a fashionable charity to support, the well-to-do lent their sponsorship.

Foundlings were even introduced to royalty. Because Handel was their patron, music was a key part of a boy's education.

Each learned an instrument, and many made careers in the army band. What they were never given, however, was affection. In 2011 the museum interviewed 74 surviving former foundlings about their experience. Said one, "Even though I have been married 53 years, I don't know what love is. I'm incapable of hugging my grandchildren because I have never had a family that was loving to me and I'm unable to express love to anyone else."

The Mediatheque at BFI Southbank

The Foundling Museum made us eager to discover more about life during this period.

Happily, we stumbled onto a treasure-trove of film history next door to the National Theatre. The Mediatheque at BFI Southbank is charged with preserving, restoring and interpreting British filmmaking through festivals, film restoration and cinema programming. Our film experience picked up where the Foundling Museum left off. By pressing a button at one of its 14 workstations we could call up films that portrayed the starkness of 18thcentury life, such as the 1958 film version of "Tale of Two Cities"; the 1920 silent version of "Bleak House"; episodes from the 1985 and 2005 BBC adaptations of the same book; and the first episode of the 2008 "Little Dorrit."

Backstage at London's National Theatre

"The play's the thing" said Shakespeare, but for the 800- plus crew of creative people who work behind the scenes, it all comes down to illusion. Kids will be fascinated by learning the secrets of making a good severed head and other body parts, why it takes 200 hours to make a wig and that it takes 25 to 30 measurements to fashion a single costume. The final puzzle is figuring out which department uses the most cheese graters (clue - it's not the kitchens).

Touring behind the scenes at the National is both an intellectual and physical workout just keeping pace with the guide through three theaters, six rehearsal halls, dressing rooms, wardrobe facilities housing thousands of costumes and huge spaces for building sets.

Sheila Sobell and Richard N. Every are freelance writers.


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Last Updated on Thursday, 06 September 2012 02:06