Curator's Choice: The Florence Nightingale Museum

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If you look at the national memorial to Florence Nightingale in Waterloo Place, you will see her immortalised carrying a Greek-style genie lamp, emulating the imagery in Longfellow's line about 'the Lady with a Lamp'. In fact, both the statue and poetic description are wrong in their portrayal of this great woman. Their inaccuracy is unimportant, however, because Florence Nightingale and the lantern she carried through the barrack hospital in Uskadar have become symbolic of a whole medical revolution in the late 19th-century.

My curatorial choice probably didn't even belong to Florence Nightingale at all, but is simply the same type of Turkish concertina folding lantern as those ordered by her at that time. The Crimean War was fought on the Black Sea peninsula between 1854 and 1856 and was a bloody precursor to the horrors of the First World War. In Florence Nightingale's hospital, which had four miles of corridor, there were 2,000 wounded soldiers from the horrific battle of Inkarmann on 3 November 1854. The museum has tried to escape from the mythical enigma surrounding her, instead showing the grubby reality of life in the barrack hospital. We have also devoted half the museum to her achievements on her return from the Crimea in 1856. Up until her death in 1910, she wrote 200 books, papers and reports on a huge range of medical subjects.

Florence Nightingale's aristocratic status enabled her to push through many of the health reforms that improved medical conditions from a pre-modern state towards the formation of modern health care. The lamp is now the symbol of nursing.

Alex Attewell is assistant curator of the Florence Nightingale Museum, 2 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 (071-620 0374)

(Photograph omitted)

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