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February 21st, 2020 | by Ella Stern

South Bank in Focus: Chloe Wong, Curator at the Florence Nightingale Museum

In the lead up Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary, we had the chance to sit down with curator, Chloe Wong to find out what’s in store for the Florence Nightingale Museum ahead of International Women’s Day.  

What do you do in the role of collections officer at the Florence Nightingale museum?

As Collections Officer I’m responsible for the physical care of our artefacts. I also look after the records and documentation which go with them, and undertake research to ensure that the information provided by the Museum is accurate. I started working at the Florence Nightingale Museum in September 2019 and it has been a steep learning curve to develop my knowledge of not only Nightingale but also the 3,000 artefacts in our collection. There is still plenty for me to learn, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the richness of the surviving sources relating to her life and work.

Can you tell us a bit about the museum?

We’re a small independent charity. Our Museum tells the story of Florence Nightingale and how her legacy shaped not only nursing but also evidence-based approaches to healthcare, statistics, and political matters. We have about 50,00 visitors per year and we’re popular with tourists and school children as well as nurses from all over the world.

How excited are you to be celebrating Florence’s 200th birthday this year? What will it mean for the museum?

2020 is a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to celebrate Nightingale’s life and work. It has been hugely exciting how much interest we have already received since the start of the year, which we are only expecting to increase after the official launch of our celebrations on 8 March 2020, which will include our special exhibition both at the Museum and fully available online, and a free pop-up exhibition which will be going on tour to at least seven NHS hospitals. We’ve been planning this for a long time and the Florence Nightingale Museum is at the centre of global activity for these celebrations. We have been working with multiple partners to support and advise on a wide range of projects, including Mattel’s new ‘Inspiring Women’ Barbie of Florence Nightingale, the Nightingale 2020 conference for nursing and midwifery worldwide, and the Florence Nightingale Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show by Robert Myers Associates and the Burdett Trust for Nursing.

How important is Florence’s legacy 200 years on? Why is she considered such an icon?

Florence was a game-changer with important progressive ideas. Not only is she the founder of modern nursing, but she advocated for issues which are still really important today – the value of healthcare research and using statistical data to inform decision-making; the importance of infection control measures for hospital designers and healthcare workers; the fact that if you help people through public information campaigns, they’re more likely to stay healthy in the first place. She dedicated her life to campaigning on issues ranging from sanitation, to nursing, to welfare provision. It’s actually very difficult neatly summarise the scale of her work because it was so vast. I also think she became iconic for others because she was hugely compassionate and genuinely believed everyone should have access to high quality healthcare. She dedicated her life to helping others, which many people find inspirational, even if she is a bit of a tough act to follow.

Why is Florence such a key figure to consider on International Women’s Day?

Nightingale not only achieved great things, but also supported other women to succeed. She specifically designed a nursing career path so that women could receive a salary during their training, so that they could progress and rise through the profession, and so that they would earn enough throughout their lifetimes to be financially independent. She also acted as a mentor to women who sought her guidance. Florence took a compassionate view of the women’s issues of her time, and for example she supported a successful campaign to repeal a British law which unfairly discriminated against prostitutes. She took a global view of women’s issues, and given Britain’s influence over India during the age of Empire, she tried to improve circumstances for Indian women, arguing for example that Indian women should be empowered to train as doctors and nurses. Florence is an inspirational figure for International Women’s Day because she was not afraid to speak up if she felt something was wrong or needed to change.    

Can you tell us about the exhibition you have planned for Nightingale 2020? What aspects of Florence’s life will it explore? What are you hoping that visitors will take away from it?

“Florence Nightingale in 200 Objects, People and Places” will explore her life and legacy right up to the present day. People often think of Nightingale as a nurse, but actually she only cared for patients herself for a few years. When she developed a chronic illness, she turned her hand to campaigning and supporting the growth and development of the nursing profession worldwide. I hope that people will take away from it some of the scale of her global impact, and the relevance of her ideas today.

Can you give us a ‘sneak peak’ of what to expect within the exhibition itself?

The exhibition will include sections exploring Florence’s impact on nursing, statistics, pop culture and more. There was far too much to choose from when it came to the exhibition. We’ve got must-see items like her famous lamp from Scutari Hospital, but we’ve also tried to highlight more unexpected stories. We’re borrowing a statue of the Buddha which is understood to have belonged to Nightingale. She was a devout Christian but she respected the Buddha as a real historical person who she believed contributed to the progress of humankind.

When is the exhibition? How long for? Why should people come?

We’ve worked really hard to build an exhibition which is fun, engaging and surprising. Whether you’re a fan, a skeptic, or just curious, Florence is a unique and compelling character. Visitors will also have the chance to nominate their own Nightingale stories. The exhibition is on from 8 March 2020 to 7 March 2021.

How have you enjoyed working on bringing this together?

We’re a small team and it’s been a huge amount of work, but it’s been a really exciting project to work on. It’s been great to have the opportunity to go through our stored collections and get out objects such as the watch she used during the Crimean War. I’ve also really enjoyed working with the Museums who are letting us display objects from their collections, such as the National Army Museum who’ve lent us Nightingale’s Geneva Cross medal.

What have been the biggest challenges getting this exhibition together?

Choosing what to include in the exhibition was a real challenge. We’ve tried to take a broad look at Florence’s life and legacy, and make sure we come all the way up to today and look into the future. We’ve also tried to go for stories which are surprising or characterful. 200 objects, people and places might sound like a lot, but there are so many fascinating stories which link to her life and legacy we could easily have included double that.

What other activities have you got planned for Nightingale 2020?

We have a wide range of activities planned for 2020. We’re really excited to be participating in the Lord Mayor’s Show on 8 November 2020. We’ve also been working with the Nightingale Fellowship to organise a commemoration service at St Paul’s Cathedral at 5pm on 27 October 2020. Nightingale’s official memorial was held at St Paul’s in 1910 so it’s great to be working with them. The service will celebrate not only Nightingale’s bicentenary, but also the work of everyone in the healthcare professions today. It will be open to all and free to attend with no ticket required, but we do recommend arriving early to get a seat! We have also organised monthly walking tours of ‘Nightingale’s London’ which really bring her story to life. And back at the Museum itself we also have free daily gallery tours which are a great introduction to Florence and our collections.  

Where else do you enjoy going to in South Bank?

You can’t beat the BFI Southbank for film screenings. Spiritland is also really great if you fancy a cup of a tea in a well-designed acoustic environment.  


Book your visit to the Florence Nightingale Museum here.