Looking at the Overlooked: writing for the Foundling Museum with 26

Mike Reed
4 February 2015

Mike and I are taking part in a fascinating new project with writer’s association 26 and the Foundling Museum in London.

Walking through grubby 18th–century London, retired sailor Thomas Coram was often shaken by the same sight. Babies, abandoned by their mothers, and left to die on the streets. Unwanted, illegitimate, or born to families too poor to feed them. Overlooked by everyone.

Except Thomas. He began petitioning the King for a new institution. It took two decades — even with A–list support from Handel, Hogarth and Dickens — to win over a conservative public, concerned about seeming to sanction licentious behaviour.

But compassion finally triumphed, and in 1739, the Foundling Hospital was founded. The overlooked became the looked after.

Today, the Hospital has evolved into adoption charity, Coram, and the Founding Museum itself.

The Museum has collected an array of objects that are endlessly adjectiveable: poignant, intriguing, puzzling. Wonderful, dramatic, heartbreaking.

Like the tokens mothers left with their children, in case they ever returned to claim their baby (they almost never did). Or the stern matron’s gavel, used to silence lunchtime chatter. Or the gentle–eyed sculpture of an unknown foundling girl.

Now, as part of 26’s latest project — 26 Pairs of Eyes: Looking at the Overlooked — we’re telling the unknown stories behind these objects.

This week, most of the 26 writers involved — including Mike and me — visited the museum and were each randomly paired with an object. (That’s some of us in the picture above, being briefed at the Museum.) Mike got the centuries–old church pews used as seats in the Hospital. Me: Hogarth’s Captain Thomas Coram.

Next, we’ll write a sestude (a piece of exactly 62 words) about our object. These will go on display at the museum this summer, after weeks of (most likely) research, blank staring, digging, searching, furious writing, and several discarded drafts of 61 and 63 words long.

But hopefully, we’ll discover in our objects that small, hidden, overlooked something — and bring it to light.

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