Smaller museums and galleries often get overlooked in the national and international press. In a new series, Apollo asks museum directors what makes their small wonders so unique. Caro Howell is the director of the Foundling Museum in London
Tell us a bit about the history of the museum…
The Museum opened in 2004 and explores the history of Foundling Hospital; the UK’s first children’s charity and London’s first public art gallery. Our collections, exhibitions and events celebrate the ways in which artists and children have inspired each other since 1740.
What makes this museum unique?
Unbroken history: William Hogarth and George Frideric Handel were Governors of the Hospital and established the template for creative philanthropy. We display their achievements and continue their legacy, by enabling artists, musicians and writers to enter into dialogue with their forebears and vulnerable children today.
How does it relate to the local area?
Our exhibitions consider different aspects of the Foundling Hospital story, which for 200 years was a London one. Our artists’ projects involve collaborations with local organisations working with looked-after young people, while our learning programmes reach out to local families, residents and schools.
How did you come to work here?
I came from the Whitechapel Gallery, where from 2005 I was Head of Education & Public Events. I was privileged to be part of their 2009 expansion, developing the new Project Galleries and learning facilities.
What are the greatest challenges of running a small museum?
Finding the means by which we can achieve our ambitions, fulfil our potential and enable people to participate in our work as visitors, collaborators and supporters.
What’s your personal highlight from the collection?
Gainsborough’s painting of The Charterhouse (1748). Gainsborough was 21 when he gave this work to the Hospital. It is a reminder that our story has always been about both emerging and established artists.
How well you do you feel you know the collection? Does it continue to surprise you?
I’m still meandering in the foothills, so surprises abound. The Hospital’s 800 linear feet of archives are largely unresearched, and we recently discovered two previously unknown Vivaldi sonatas in our Gerald Coke Handel Collection; so I’m not alone!
How has the museum developed during your tenure?
The different aspects of our collection now share a single narrative; namely the ways in which artists of all disciplines have helped improve children’s lives for over 270 years. This puts contemporary practitioners centre stage and enables our dialogue with history to be a living one.
And what does the future hold for the Foundling Museum?
A 10th birthday in 2014, a refurbished Introductory Gallery and a series of great exhibitions, commissions and artists’ projects that continue to shed new light on the stories we tell and bring new voices to the conversations we generate.
Caro Howell is the director of The Foundling Museum in London.