Alice Mayers describes a collaborative project between the Foundling Museum and the National Theatre.

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital in London. It was Britain’s first home for abandoned babies and children. Now known as the Foundling Museum, it details the stories of the thousands who grew up there. In partnership with the National Theatre, which recently staged Jamila Gavin’s novel Coram Boy, the museum has welcomed many secondary school students to explore a range of challenging moral issues embedded in the narrative. The project has provided the museum’s education team with an opportunity to discover how drama can be used to engage teachers and students in PSHE and citizenship topics.

Powerful cross-curricular learning

Coram Boy tells the tales of two boys growing up in the Foundling Hospital in the eighteenth century and deals with issues of racism, bullying, children’s rights, teenage pregnancy and slavery. Last year an adaptation was staged by the National Theatre, which returned to the theatre in November 2006. As part of a joint education initiative between the museum and theatre, the project enabled students to visit both venues in one joined-up day-trip. Students took part in actor-led workshops at the museum before seeing the production.

Facilitators from the National Theatre’s Interact Project led groups of young people around the museum, who undertook dramatic and musical workshop activities as they went. The Foundling Museum’s eighteenth century interiors, paintings, photographs, objects and archive material were integrated into these learning experiences. Young people were offered opportunities to contextualise and explore further issues such as single parent families, alcohol abuse, parental responsibilities, homelessness and institutionalisation. Students sang the Hallelujah Chorus in front of Handel’s own copy of the Messiah score, parts of which are in the museum’s collection. They also re-enacted the Hospital lottery, where women took a ball from a bag – the colour of the ball determined whether their child was taken into the Hospital or rejected.

The most powerful activity took place in the Court Room, where generations of women had come to petition the governors of the Hospital to find a place for their child. Students acted the parts of their historical predecessors: at one end of the ornately decorated room a girl, looking desperate and miserable, pleaded her case using words from an actual event. The roles of other young mothers with equally distressing stories were played by her peers. All vied for the same Hospital place that would almost certainly save the life of their child and rescue them from social disgrace. Classmates acted as judges; the governors who decided the fate of the baby. Through this deeply moving and intense role-play students came to realise that the Hospital governors really did hold the fates of children and women in their hands.

Drama proved to be a powerful way of sharing and conveying these stories. However, it was this historical context that provided a safety net. It allowed the students to think, explore and share their feelings in the knowledge that they were using examples and case studies that were centuries distant. But the real life names, letters and accounts conveyed the same emotions and feelings that young people could relate to and empathise with today.

The work of Thomas Coram continues through the charity Coram Family, whose interventions and education projects are aimed at supporting vulnerable children, young people and their families, and those leaving care.

What was learned?

Students from Greater London schools:

I learned about the hospital and about Tom Coram, it really inspired me to know about a man with a big heart. (Year 10)

The fact that back in those days life was tough and that society was split into two groups RICH and POOR. If you were poor it was like being in hell. (Year 8)

I learned that in the olden days they were sexist and racist. (Year 8)

I learnt that most people in charge were men. And that the babies only got given away, as you couldn’t be a single mum. (Year 9)

Paula Hamilton, manager of the Interact Project:

The feedback from the teachers has been absolutely fantastic. One teacher from a culturally diverse, inner London school reported that on the journey home, the students had had the most open and passionate debate about racism she had ever witnessed. This had been fuelled by images they had seen and information that they had explored in the museum, which had led to a real engagement with certain scenes in the play.

Reaching out

The Foundling Museum encourages visits by both primary and secondary schools. Admission is free for school groups and free workshops can be tailored to meet particular needs across the curriculum: art, history, music, sociology, PSHE, citizenship and more. Further projects are being developed that deal with SRE. Former pupils of the Foundling Hospital, which closed in the 1950s, are available to offer vivid recollections of their experiences and how these influenced them later in life in terms of identity, self-expression, and in their relationships with partners and children.

The Museum has been overwhelmed by the positive response from the young people brought to the museum through the Coram Boy project. Their responses have given us a new perspective on our collection, reminding staff and volunteers of its continuing relevance and how it is much more than a memorial to the past wrongs of society. The project provided insights into social progress and indicated where improvements are still needed. It extended a forum for discussion that highlighted issues that today’s young visitors might one day be able to change.

Further information:

Coram Family
Foundling Museum
Gavin, J (2000) Coram Boy. London: Egmont Books.
National Theatre

Alice Mayers is Education Manager at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ. Tel: 020 7841 3605