Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

From the Many to the Few: Character and Social Ethics in the Foundling Museum

Tracey Taylor


One of the many recent expansions of the idea of narrative to different disciplines has been the idea of the museum exhibition as narrative. Suzanne McLeod, Laura Hourston Hanks and Jonathan Hale, in their introductory survey of contemporary museum-making, identify this as a twenty-first century phenomenon, part of a fundamental revisioning of the idea of the exhibition in both museum theory and museum design (xix). Rather than collections of objects or accumulations of facts and information, exhibitions become “structured experiences unfolding in space and time” (McLeod, Hourston Hanks and Hale xxi): stories told through objects and media in spatial sequences.

Thinking of exhibitions as narratives has led to applications or ‘transpositions’ of literary narrative structures and devices, as well as of various narratological theories, to both the analysis and design of exhibitions (Hourston Hanks 26). Among these transpositions has been the description of the human figures in exhibitions as ‘characters’. There has been remarkably little so far written on characters in exhibition narratives, suggesting that this move has not yet been well explored. However one of its more interesting implications is that it seems to open up the newly-formed concept of the exhibition ‘character’, as a representation of a person, to concepts of character in other narrative disciplines. In particular, the field of literary studies has a well-established terrain of thought in this regard, having long been engaged in working through the complicated puzzle of not only what character is, in conceptual terms, but also how it functions in narrative and what it contributes to the process of narrative meaning-making. The exhibition ‘character’ therefore represents a challenge – how to productively theorise this new form of character in a way that engages with and reflects the work that has already happened in other fields? – and an opportunity, in that various existing critical frameworks of character from fields such as literary studies may have much to contribute to enriching and thickening ways of thinking about the representations of human figures in exhibition narratives.

Drawing on the recent work of Alex Woloch on literary character, I want to suggest that one particularly productive framework that literary studies has to offer to the museum exhibition narrative is the conceptualisation of multiple characters within the frame of the same narrative text as a kind of interrelated narrative social system, or ‘character-system’. My particular focus here is on the social history museum, to which this character-system approach may be especially productive. This is explored in this article through a reading of the Foundling Museum, a social history museum in central London, in terms of Woloch’s theory of character-space and character-system. Thought of as a single narrative ‘text’, the Foundling Museum’s exhibition narrative is able to be understood in terms of a narrative set of social relations between its characters – social relations which the text itself establishes, through the way in which it positions and accommodates its different sets of characters, according them more or less space and attention.

At the same time, what distinguishes the exhibition as narrative from the literary text as narrative is that exhibitions take place in real, three-dimensional space. Adding a specifically spatial layer of reading to the account of the Foundling Museum’s exhibition narrative, which takes into consideration its relation to the historic house museum as a spatial genre, reveals that the social system of the exhibition narrative is also inflected by the visitor’s reading of the meaning of space, and by the properties particular to character in space.

However in addition to the analysis of the narrative social system internal to the Foundling Museum’s exhibition narrative, in consideration of the Foundling Museum specifically as a social history museum a final layer of reading can be productively undertaken to compare the narrative social relations of the museum’s exhibition narrative with the real social relations of the history it tells. The Foundling Museum’s account of foundling children and the establishment of the Foundling Hospital reveals, among its many stories, the stratified social system of eighteenth and nineteenth century London, within which the various figures from the Hospital’s history are distributed. The museum’s exhibition narrative, arranging these same figures as characters in its narrative social system, therefore has an interesting and potentially powerful relationship to these historical social relations.

1. The One vs The Many: Alex Woloch’s character-system

Undertaken as a study of the nineteenth century novel, Alex Woloch’s recent work on literary character asks how narrative forms “accommodate the surge of many people into a single story” (11). For Woloch, in the nineteenth century tradition of literary realism, character becomes strongly marked by the notion of the implied person, informed by our understanding of a real human personality, with psychological depth, infinitely expansive and complex (13). However the narrative text is bounded: its story is only of a certain extent, it has only so many words, so much time, so much conceptual room. The presence of multiple characters – multiple implied people, each infinitely expansive – within the same narrative therefore means that they contest the same limited textual ‘space’; each character, even just on its own, in theory far exceeds this space, and yet they are all drawn into the same space by the narrative text, which weaves them together into its story.

In order to not only fit all of these characters into the space of the text but also to organise them into a coherent, meaningful narrative system, the text must therefore make a series of structural decisions around which characters receive more priority and which less. Some become main characters, some are relegated to minor characters, and others occupy the many possible degrees in between. In doing so, the text confines the infinite expansiveness of the implied person to a ‘character-space’, which is a delimited and apportioned position in a narrative structure. Each character emerges as a character through the dynamic process in which the idea of an implied person is continuously framed and delimited by a particular ‘character-space’ within a narrative system: “the discrete representation of any specific individual is intertwined with the narrative’s continual apportioning of attention to different characters who jostle for limited space within the same fictive universe.” The “arrangement of multiple and differentiated character-spaces…into a unified narrative structure” (14) produces what Woloch terms a ‘character-system’. Because of the limited extent of the textual space in which this character-system sits, the narrative text is in effect a zero-sum game: creating larger character-spaces for some characters can only be achieved by confining other characters into smaller spaces. Major characters gain their ‘majorness’ at the expense of other characters, who are compressed into ‘minorness’.

This designation of character-spaces and their arrangement into a character-system is effected in the text through the distribution of the narrative’s attention, a fluid measure of how much consideration characters are allotted within the limited span of the text as it unrolls itself from beginning to end. Given a greater amount of attention, characters have more narrative space, into which they can unfold themselves in greater complexity and depth; given only cursory or limited attention, they can only express themselves as quick sketches or outlines. Crucially, this distribution of attention is not merely a formal exercise but is in fact one of the most fundamental mechanisms for narrative signification: “narrative meaning takes shape in the dynamic flux of attention and neglect towards the various characters who are locked within the same story but have radically different positions within the narrative.”

Because of its basis in the realist nineteenth century novel, within which every character is in theory equally ‘realistic’, a full and complex implied person, Woloch’s discussion of narrative attention is therefore not a discussion of the possible desirability of minorness. Every character, expansive in their realism, by definition demands – and has an equal claim on – the space within which this realism can bloom into full, rich complexity. The act of distributing attention, for Woloch, is therefore not neutral but is charged with a kind of social ethics. Considering as its point of departure a horizon of narrative ‘fairness’, in which every character would, in theory, be treated equally and apportioned equal space, the text’s distribution of narrative attention through the expansion of some characters and the marginalisation of others is the imposition of a structural unfairness. The asymmetry of the distribution of attention across characters within the narrative thus represents something akin to a social stratification within the narrative’s social system, and the narrative text is implicated in the ethics of this stratification, in allowing some characters to expand, to take the stage, at the expense of others.

Without ahistoricising Woloch’s theory, which is rooted in the nineteenth century novel, I would suggest that its basis in the realist concept of the implied person allows it to be usefully discussed in relation to the exhibition narratives of social history museums, in that the human figures who appear in these particular exhibition narratives are, more often than not, representations of real historical figures. As ‘characters’, they therefore also take their strongest conceptual reference from our understanding of real, complex, infinitely expansive human personalities. Yet, like Woloch’s literary texts, the exhibition narratives of social history museums are limited and finite, unable to accommodate multiple realist characters in their full, infinitely expansive extent. Like the literary text, social history museum exhibition narratives, such as that of London’s Foundling Museum, must distribute their attention across these different characters, allotting them particular spaces, allowing some to be major and squeezing others into minorness – producing a stratified, unequal character-system with a social ethics in which the narrative itself is implicated.

2. Characters in the Foundling Museum

Located in Coram’s Fields in Bloomsbury, the Foundling Museum tells the history of the Foundling Hospital, established in 1739 by the wealthy shipwright Thomas Coram. Its purpose was to take in children whose mothers – often unmarried – could not afford to keep them, and who most frequently ended their lives abandoned on London’s streets.

The Hospital itself occupied Coram’s Fields in its more rural history, and consisted of a large three-winged building surrounded by pasture. Charity was a growing fashion in eighteenth century London, and the Hospital was patronised by a number of London’s well-known artists and public figures, including Hogarth and Handel. As well as serving as a Governor, Hogarth instituted the Hospital’s art collection through donation of his own paintings, a collection added to by bequests from a number of his leading contemporaries. The Hospital drummed up much of its charitable support from exhibitions of its collection as well as of new works by various artists, meaning that it perhaps functioned as London’s first public art gallery (Howell 16).

With the increasing urbanisation of London, the Hospital moved to Surrey in 1926, and later to Hertfordshire; the hospital building at Coram’s Fields was demolished. However Governors of the Hospital sought to retain a London headquarters, and, following the collapse of development plans for the Coram’s Fields estate, purchased a small section of it, upon which the current building was constructed in 1937. Interestingly, elements of the original hospital building had been preserved and were reincorporated into the new Georgian townhouse-style building, with some spaces, such as the Court Room and the Picture Gallery, constructed as replicas of the original rooms. The building became a museum in 1998, and was renovated extensively, reopening in 2004. This means that the current building has a curious architectural history, half new and half replica. Despite its location on the original hospital site, it is a new edifice, designed primarily as an office, an exhibition space and a meeting space for the Governors and patrons.

The Foundling Museum’s key stated purpose is to tell the story of the Foundling Hospital. It houses two collections: the Foundling Hospital Collection, consisting of documents, artworks and objects from the Foundling Hospital, and the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, consisting of various material relating to Handel and his contemporaries donated to the museum by Coke’s widow upon his death in 1996. The Museum exhibitions arrange these collections in what can be thought of as its exhibition narrative[1]: a sequence of objects and media organised in a meaningful way, to tell a story, along a visitor route through a series of spaces. Within this narrative, there are two primary sets of characters: the foundlings themselves, of whom there were thousands over more than two hundred years (Howell 22), and their patrons and governors. Into the limited space of the Museum’s exhibition narrative, these two sets of characters crowd, jostling for space; the structural decisions that the narrative must take in order to accommodate them, allowing some more space as major characters and pressing others into smaller, more marginalised spaces, can be read by analysing the distribution of the narrative’s attention: the amount and quality of attention that it apportions to the foundlings and their patrons and governors respectively. In doing so, the social system of the exhibition narrative, stratified between its major and minor characters, becomes legible. This reading has been undertaken below with the experience and perspective of the visitor in mind; as a book tells its story to a reader, an exhibition tells its story to its visitor, and its narrative is therefore most usefully understood as the presentation of its story to the visitor who steps into the Museum for the first time and follows the primary visitor route along which the story is told in its most strongly structured, sequenced form.

3. The distribution of narrative attention in the Foundling Museum

The first exhibition space that the visitor encounters in the Museum is the Introductory Gallery, which introduces visitors to the foundlings themselves through the evocation of the foundlings’ experiences in the Foundling Hospital and the recounting of their lives and histories. The foundlings are identified as individuals: the end wall of this gallery displays an extensive list of their names, while sets of photographs trace the lives of particular foundlings from their childhood through to the present day, and a display of foundling tokens – though typological – gestures to the individualisation that was articulated by the unique, often poignant identification of each child by its parent. A recreated hospital bed gives some indication of the qualities of the experience of being a foundling in the Foundling Hospital, supported by audio from former foundlings, who recount their memories of their time there. A selection of personal belongings and real items used by individual foundlings – individual uniforms, crockery and cutlery, a suitcase, a diary, a sampler – also evoke a sense of personal experience and personal identity as part of this history.

This narrative attention of this gallery is therefore very much allocated to the foundlings as individuated, real people, yet it is worth noting that the exhibitions are also strongly underpinned by the sense of the Foundling Hospital as institution. The sequence of exhibitions is structured as a chronology of the hospital, and alongside the items that speak to the personal stories and experiences of the foundlings are an equal number of items that represent the institution: record books, petitions, the hospital’s charter. The oundlings, while they are the focus of the gallery, are also already circumscribed by the larger presence of the institution itself; they are, from the outset, perceptibly not the main structural or conceptual logic of the museum.

The second room on the visitor route, the Committee Room – one of the museum’s three reconstructed period interiors – draws the visitor’s attention to the series of paintings hung in ornate gilt frames around the walls, which include a large landscape by George Lambert and Hogarth’s The March of the Guards. The presence of the foundlings in this room is primarily in the form of Emma Brownlow’s paintings, which portray the foundlings not as individual, real people but through a series of romanticised scenarios in which large-eyed, clean and attractive foundlings are returned to their birth mothers or accepted into the care of the Hospital. Other than these paintings, there is little else in the room that has much to do with the foundlings. The primary objects exhibited – a long wooden committee table, around which decisions on which children to admit and which to reject were taken, a fireplace with an ornate mantel and a display cabinet showing a silver collection used in the Hospital’s chapel and by its secretaries – have more to do with the hospital’s officials and its governors.

The second floor of the museum, containing the Court Room and the Picture Gallery, is wholly occupied not with the foundlings but their patrons and Governors, through its determining interest in the elegant spaces where these patrons met and made decisions, hung their portraits and held events. Great emphasis is placed on décor, with much of the signage describing details of the recreation of these two rooms. The Picture Gallery is long, open and impressive, with its golden wooden parquet floor and green walls lined with richly coloured paintings of patrons or charitably donated scenes. Its sparse furnishings include carved wooden chairs and a piano. The Court Room, opulent and intricate, is described in its introductory text panel as “one of the best surviving examples of an English Rococo interior”, with a plasterwork ceiling by William Wilton and a feature overmantle by John Michael Rysbruck. This attention to décor is made all the more compelling by the building’s dramatic architectural history – a story of reconstruction through a kind of theatrical archaeology in which original features were uncovered and restored, and reinserted into the new building’s elaborate replica rooms; photographs and paintings were studied for reference, floor plans measured and paint samples analysed. Possibly designed by Hogarth himself, the room is as composed as decorated porcelain, with its pictures set into a green background and surrounded by decorative flourishes. The foundlings themselves make no appearance in the room and are gestured to only by a series of allegorical religious paintings – Moses in the bulrushes, Hagar and Ishmael – and gestured to by the roundels showing charitable institutions. The foundlings have become simultaneously the substance of religious morals – take in and care for the abandoned, forgive and save the cast-out mothers – and figures of systematised institutional charity, a population defined by their particular social plight, living invisibly somewhere inside the roundels’ people-less painted buildings.

On the top floor, the Handel room is, as its name suggests, devoted entirely to Handel himself. Glass display cases show busts of Handel, as well as manuscripts, letters, programmes, concert tickets and even Handel’s will. A round wooden timeline of Handel’s life and work, with gold inlaid lettering, occupies the centre of the room like an anchor or a compass, commanding the focal point, while plush red reading chairs enable visitors to sit and listen to a selection of Handel’s music. The room employs a more modern aesthetic, with a sloping ceiling, pale walls and contemporary cone-shaped lights. The foundlings have disappeared completely from view, included only obliquely in the form of occasional references made to Handel’s charitable concerts at the Foundling Hospital.

Throughout this visitor journey, it is worth noting that the supporting or secondary spaces of the museum are also generally aligned with the stories of the governors and patrons. The staircase itself is hung for the most part with large, impressive portraits of the Foundling Hospital’s governors, secretaries and treasurers. The overall interior design of the museum works to support the creation of an environment that is elegant and comfortable, with thick carpeting on the stairs and well-worn golden wood on the floors, translucent blinds covering the windows, muted lighting and warmth. The acoustic is soft, and the main sound in each room is the ticking of old clocks. The result is an experience that is quiet, contemplative, visually beautiful; a self-contained, absorbed and absorbing world. This is a space far removed from the experiences of the foundlings and their narrow beds and institutional schoolrooms.

Overall, then, as the visitor leaves the space of the Introductory Gallery and continues through the museum, both the content and the spatial qualities of the subsequent rooms become increasingly removed from these actual, individual foundlings and the qualities of their experience, and in these subsequent spaces they receive a diminished amount of narrative attention. This occurs in two ways: firstly, the nature of the foundlings’ representation in the Museum’s spaces shifts from presenting them as real people with specific histories, as they are given to visitors in the Introductory Gallery, to presenting them as idealised emblems, types rather than individuals. Their expansive, complex implied personhood is thereby qualitatively confined to the smaller space allowed by a more simplistic, reductive form of representation that, by its very nature, allows for less complexity. Secondly, the amount of narrative attention that the foundlings in fact receive in the museum, as the visitor progresses through it, amounts to surprisingly little over the course of the museum. The foundlings are therefore also quantitatively confined to smaller narrative spaces: they simply occur less in the narrative, becoming background references rather than the major subject.

If the narrative attention in the Foundling Museum is being allotted, over the course of this narrative, to its two major sets of characters – the foundlings and their governors and patrons – the asymmetry of this distribution is apparent. Over the museum as a whole, like Woloch’s minor characters the foundlings’ claim on the narrative’s limited attention proves to be substantially weaker, and they are generally subsumed by the more powerful claim of the Hospital’s governors and patrons. The social stratification of the Foundling Museum as a narrative text places the patrons and governors at the top of the narrative’s social system as major characters, expanding into space and attention; the foundlings become minor characters, occupying the margins, the background. As in Woloch’s account of many of the minor characters in his study of nineteenth century novels, the sense of an enforced minorness – of the compression of some characters into smaller character-spaces in order to make room for others – is therefore a troubling dynamic of the Foundling Museum narrative. Like the minor characters of nineteenth century realist literature, the foundlings – in the context of a museum that is named for them, that begins its visitor journey by introducing them as fully individuated, real people, that sees itself as the repository of their stories – have substantial claims on the text’s attention that are subordinated to the claims of other characters: their governors and patrons. With the logic of the narrative as a zero-sum game of distributed attention, the majorness of some characters is at the cost of others, and the exhibition itself has a kind of narrative responsibility for the ethics of these structural decisions.  

4. Narrative attention and narrative sequence

In addition to this asymmetrical distribution in the Foundling Museum overall, a further important dynamic of the exhibition narrative’s distribution of attention is its relationship to the narrative spatial sequence. Overlaid onto the primary visitor journey through the museum, which has a basic organisation from bottom to top – from the Introductory Gallery on the ground floor through the Committee Room and then up the staircase to the subsequent spaces – the pattern of distribution of narrative attention is such that the foundlings perform a kind of disappearing act. Inscribed in the Introductory Gallery at the beginning of the narrative as real, individualised people, the foundlings progressively fade from view over the sequence of subsequent spaces, erased or overwritten by the prioritised stories of their governors and patrons. The Museum is in this sense a narrative progression from the many to the few, from the multitudes of foundlings and their histories to a selection of individuals – their patrons and governors – and finally to perhaps their single most famous patron of all. As well as producing a social stratification of its characters, the Museum’s exhibition narrative therefore also suggests a social ideology of a kind in which some characters ultimately matter more than others; that some are of greater note; beginning with the mass of ordinary foundling histories, visitors may then leave these behind and ascend to the more rarefied histories of the hospital’s great patrons, and finally to the life of one of the most famous composers in musical history: the ordinary many are overwritten by the famous few.

What is in a way compelling about this message is that it is a curiously honest reflection of the processes of history: some lives do make spaces in history, opening up within the numberless multitudes of others; most are forgotten and yet a few are painted and hang on the walls of galleries. However in its strong sense of a process of marginalisation, the Foundling Museum’s progressively diminishing apportioning of narrative attention to its foundling characters of the course of its spatial sequence compounds the troubling quality of the enforced minorness of these characters. Not only are they overall made into minor characters by the exhibition narrative, despite their claims to be major ones, the foundlings are also strongly presented as fully rounded, individuated, richly complex individuals at the outset, only to then be squeezed into minorness, which has the effect of emphasising the uncomfortable magnitude of this compression. Again, the narrative itself is implicated in the ethics of this by virtue of the structural decisions it makes to begin with the foundlings, allowing them space and roundness, and then to reduce them and consign them to the background.

5. Presence and recuperation

Thus far, the reading of the Foundling Museum as a narrative text has followed the model of the literary text, and the distribution of the narrative’s attention and the deployment of its stratified social system are read accordingly. However because exhibition narratives take place in real, three-dimensional space, it is important to also consider the meanings of spaces themselves as a dimension of these narratives.

As an historic building with reconstructed period interiors, the Foundling Museum’s spaces can be usefully read in terms of a particular museum type: that of the historic house museum. Rosanna Pavoni defines this museum type in a recent article as a museum-home in which the original furnishings and fittings are preserved, making the house and its contents one meaningful entity, one interlocked representation of the past; “the specific character of this type of building is the indissoluble link between container and contained” (17). As Monica Risnicoff de Gorgas has noted, these museums are particularly evocative: the historic house “possesses a special ‘atmosphere’ which takes visitors back to other times and makes them wonder what other periods had transited through the same spaces they are now passing through… more than a monument that celebrates a lost past, a historic house is seen as a place where people have lived out their life” (10). It produces “an intimate link between collective memory and personal memory” (de Gorgas 10). The historic house museum, then, functions by a logic of prior occupation: the space is made powerful and meaningful by the sense that this very space was once lived in or used by people in older times; it is a palimpsest of various uses and is layered with other consciousnesses, other loves, sorrows, feuds, births and deaths. It conjures up the people who once occupied it.

This additional spatial layer on which the exhibition narrative communicates also necessarily shapes the reading of its characters and its social system. Exhibition characters, while not unlike literary characters, also have spatial properties. The literary character can only really be described by the text, whereas the exhibition character may be described but also visualised, made audible, given movement and even three-dimensional form. In relation to the historic house museum, I would suggest that one of the most powerful spatial properties of character is that of presence: a quality of being-there, of occupying or inhabiting space. This quality is made manifest in the historic house museum in two interesting ways: by the suggestion of presence – traces, sounds, the design of a space such that it looks as if it has been lived in and used by people – and the account of presence: the knowledge that a space has been previously occupied, which prompts and allows us to imagine people in it.

The Foundling Museum, in its reconstructed period interiors, offering a glimpse into the previous world of the Foundling Hospital’s governors and patrons, evokes their working lives, their meetings and social occasions, the exhibitions of the Hospital’s famous artists and the minglings of its wealthy patrons. It thereby creates a dense quality of presence for these characters in the museum, through the recreation of the spaces that they have formerly occupied: it is easy to imagine, in the Court Room, the governors sitting in its stately chairs, convening around the Committee Room table or strolling in the Picture Room.

Yet the museum is also heavy with the history of the Foundling Hospital itself. In its in its very name – the Foundling Museum – and its location, in the grounds of the old hospital, as well as through the history of the Foundling Hospital that is established in the visitor’s mind in the very first gallery, the museum also strongly suggests that the space that it should be conjuring up is not the administrative offices of its governors but that of the old hospital itself – the spaces occupied by the foundlings. In this slippage, an interesting phenomenon occurs whereby the historic space produces the memory of spaces that it never quite contained.

This means that it is possible to have a curious experience in which, walking through the museum, it is difficult not to imagine the foundling children in the space, running through the corridors; one catches oneself wondering where the beds used to be, or where the schoolroom was. The logic of prior occupation operates even though the actual history of prior occupation does not exist. In a way, then, an alternate kind of spatial presence is produced, in which the foundling children do occupy the space through a reverse process of an imagined presence that generates a revised history – the present producing history, rather than the other way around.

The addition of this spatial layer to the reading of Foundling Museum’s exhibition narrative therefore offers a kind of recuperation of the progressive erasure of the foundlings that an analysis of its narrative distribution of attention based purely on the principles of the literary text suggests. Here, the foundlings populate, disrupt and occupy the Museum’s ornate décor and quiet, comfortable spaces. The dissonance between walking through the ornate rococo interiors and grand portraits of the museum and thinking, at the same time, of the foundlings and their institutional world of poverty and charity may also function as a form of implicit social critique, making ever more apparent the gap between the two social classes, while at the same time giving the foundlings a kind of history they never had.

6. Narrative ethics

However the possible recuperation that this spatial layer of reading offers is at best an ambivalent one, as it relies little on the deliberate decisions of the narrative itself. The spatial qualities of museum exhibitions form an integral part of their exhibition narratives, and so the consideration of the Foundling Museum’s spatial meanings is important; yet the reading that produces additional weight for the foundlings through an expanded sense of their presence is also largely the result of a confluence of factors that produces a kind of misreading, or a superimposed reading. Through the structural decisions it makes in relation to its characters, the exhibition narrative of the Foundling Museum seems still to produce a narrative social ethics that most strongly privileges and prioritises the Hospital’s governors and patrons, at the expense of the foundlings and their stories.

What is interesting about the social ethics of social history museums, such as the Foundling Museum, is how these narrative social ethics align with the real social relations visible in the social histories they recount. In the case of the Foundling Museum, the deployment of a character-system that gives space and attention to the Hospital’s patrons and governors, at the expense of the space and attention given to the foundlings, in fact parallels the social stratification of eighteenth and nineteenth century society, in which the foundlings were marginal figures, generally without means or influence, and their patrons were wealthier and significantly more influential. The majorness of the Hospital’s governors and patrons and the minorness of the foundlings as characters in the museum’s exhibition narrative thus reflects the real differences in socioeconomic circumstances between the foundlings themselves and their patrons. If the narrative itself is not exempt from the ethical implications of its stratified character-system, in mirroring the real social inequity of eighteenth and nineteenth century London, it also perpetuates or reinscribes its unfairness, if somehow in a slightly different register – a narrative one, rather than a real, lived one.

However the question of what the alignment between the narrative social asymmetry and the real social asymmetry of the eighteenth and nineteenth century in the Foundling Museum really signifies is an interesting one. Reinscribing the social inequalities of a previous era, does the museum reenact or perpetuate the marginalisation of the foundlings in the current one? Should it seek to revise or overturn this dynamic? Or does it in fact provide visitors with a more faithful – and perhaps more ambivalent – account of the Foundling Hospital as an institution and a charitable cause, as a system and a political entity, as an operation and practice of patronage? For museums like the Foundling Museum, which relate social histories, the relationship between the exhibition narrative’s own textual social system – which characters it prioritises and which it marginalises – and the relations between real people in real social histories not only offers a productive framework for analysis but perhaps also a relevant consideration to the intelligent narration of these stories.


This reading of the Foundling Museum as character-system aims to gesture to the broad value of the concept of the narrative text as an interrelated social system, or character-system, to the analysis – and even the design – of museum exhibition narratives. As an approach, it offers a productive way of engaging with the complexity and richness of characters through exploring their relations to each other within the same narrative fabric. Stratified by the distribution of its attention across different characters, all clamouring for space and voice, the narrative text becomes animated by vivid dynamics, in the compression of a single, expansive character into the limited frame of a character-space, and between multiple characters arranged into a set of interrelated narrative spaces. Combined with the three-dimensional space particular to the exhibition narrative, in which characters can have a quality of spatial presence or being-there, these dynamics make for interesting human narratives, vibrating with a range of powerful social qualities.

However what this article ultimately argues for is the value of this character-system approach for social history museums, where the character-system is important in two key ways. Firstly, it brings this ‘socialness’ to social history, offering ways of examining, articulating and even producing energetic, ethically charged social dynamics that are especially appropriate to narratives that turn on the practices and relationships of humans to other humans – the histories of how we have lived in relation to each other. Secondly, the reading of the Foundling Museum, in which the asymmetrical social relations between characters within the museum’s exhibition narrative mirrors and replicates the real social relations of the eighteenth and nineteenth century social history it tells, reflects the potential for the exhibition narratives of social history museums to bear interesting relationships to the actual social relations of real histories. The character-system approach offers a way of intelligently analysing – and perhaps even narrating – these real social relations, through exploring the contrasts or parallels between the narrative character-system with the real social systems of specific histories.


de Gorgas, Monica Risnicoff. (2001). “Reality as Illusion, The Historic Houses that Become Museums.” Museum International 53.2: 10–15.

Howell, Caro. (2014) The Foundling Museum: An Introduction. Berkshire: Lamport Gilbert.

Hourston Hanks, Laura. (2012). “Writing Spatial Stories: Textual Narratives in the Museum.” Macleod, Hourston Hanks and Hale 21–33. Print.

Macleod, Suzanne, Laura Hourston Hanks and Jonathan Hale, eds. (2012). Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions. London and New York: Routledge.

Pavoni, Rosanna. (2001). “Towards a Definition and Typology of Historic House Museums.” Museum International 53.2: 16–21.

Woloch, Alex. (2003). The One vs. the Many. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


[1] The Foundling Museum also contains a temporary exhibition space; however for the purposes of this article, the Museum’s exhibition narrative is considered to be made up of its permanent exhibitions. This is because, in the continually changing nature of their content and purpose, the exhibitions in the temporary space form a less significant part of the Museum’s overall exhibition narrative and also do not form part of the primary visitor route through the Museum, although if visited, their content may of course also contribute to the visitor’s understanding of the Museum and its narrative.