Museums and museum websites
Advisory to Teachers, Pupils and Parents on Museum Visits/Websites
Many schools, at all levels, take pupils on museum visits and use their websites for their teaching.
Unfortunately, on Mary Seacole, the websites and visits offered are full of inaccurate information, from using the many poor sources available, and failing to check out better, primary, sources.
Some of the museums are highly prestigious. Several have been advised of errors on their websites, but have failed to correct them—nor did they defend them!
Herewith some examples.
Museum of London
Its website has the all-too-frequent errors of Seacole being “eager” to join Nightingale’s team, although her own memoir makes it clear that she did not start to apply until well after Nightingale had left for the war, and then only informally—she never submitted the required application or references. It has her helping “on the battlefield, at times even under cannon fire,” although her own account describes no such cannons.
She was not given medals by Britain, Turkey and France “for her bravery in the war,” as the Museum claimed—nor did she ever state this in her memoir. To the “herbal remedies” she is said to have used, Seacole added lead acetate and mercury chloride, toxic substances and hardly herbals. This she was frank about in her book—she thought them beneficial, as did many doctors.
National Army Museum
Its website has numerous exaggerations and plain false statements. Seacole never claimed to have “nursed thousands through the cholera and yellow fever epidemics.” She claimed a few successes with cholera, but also admitted “lamentable blunders,” undeniable since she used lead acetate and mercury chloride in her “remedies,” both toxic substances.
Having Seacole report that “four out of five” of the men died of disease is misleading—those facts were only known much later, and were much used by Nightingale to propose reforms.
The website accuses a “companion” of Nightingale of refusing Seacole because of her dusky skin, but fails to mention that Seacole never applied for a post, and that Nightingale had already left for the war and had started nursing while Seacole was busy in London on her gold investments (she arrived from Panama, where she had prospected for gold).
The National Army Museum is wrong also that Seacole was saved from destitution by “soldiers” after the war. The customers at her restaurant/bar/store/takeaway/catering service were officers, not soldiers (who could not have afforded her prices). Officers rescued her.
Oddly, the website acknowledges that Seacole wore medals, that she “was not officially awarded.” It is wrong yet again in calling her a “Civilian supplier of food/medical care to the British Expeditionary Force,” when she ran a business for officers, hardly the whole force.
Science Museum, London
Apart from such trivial errors as calling Seacole’s husband a naval officer (he was a merchant), there are more serious errors, such as that she went to London to apply to become a nurse (when she went to attend to her gold stocks). The Science Museum credits her with serving good food to ordinary soldiers, when her business was for officers.
It is curious to see a “science museum” so wrong on the facts, but this one has the Crimean War starting in 1853, when Britain, France and Turkey invaded the Crimea in September 1854. Seacole got there in 1855, but the museum has her there at the beginning (when in fact she was in Panama winding up her business, prospecting for gold and investing in gold stocks).
The Science Museum website has Seacole turned down for Nightingale’s team, probably for reasons of ethnicity, when Seacole never applied, and Nightingale’s team had already left.
The Science Museum turns Seacole’s three times on the battlefield, all post-battle, into frequent activities (she missed the three major battles of the war as she was busy with her gold stocks). From her own book it is clear that she was present only for three battles, all of them over in a matter of hours.
The Science Museum website has Seacole going bankrupt from loaning money to soldiers who did not repay—not a practice she ever reported, and her customers were officers, not soldiers, in any event.
Is the Science Museum this casual on biology and chemistry?
Soho House Museum, Birmingham
The Mary Seacole section credits her with inspiring “a generation with her book, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.” Her book is certainly interesting, but it is only recently that such claims have been made for it: at that time it was an enjoyable travel book. The museum promises role-play, costume work and artefact handling, so that pupils will learn about this “positive role model.” But role model for what? She was a businesswoman generous in her voluntary work, but she was far from a “role model” for nursing, given that she used toxic substances in her remedies.
Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds
The museum’s “Information about Mary Seacole for Teachers” is faulty, promoting her a s a “Skilful nurse and doctress from Jamaica, a pioneering woman.” She was, rather, a businesswoman, with her “doctress” work on the side.
Her mother is said to have run a “boarding house where she treated injured soldiers using traditional herbal medicine,” although Seacole never said that of her. The customers at their boarding house with army and navy officers and their wives.
A more serious blooper is that “in 1851, she opened a hospital with her brother in New Granada (now Panama).” If you read her book, you would see that her brother opened a hotel there, and she had a restaurant/store. Neither ran a hospital.
The museum is misleadng in saying that “on her return to Jamaica in 1853, she was asked to help with the yellow fever epidemic.” She was asked to help, but she explained in her book that she could not. She claimed no successes with yellow fever.
The museum is wrong again on Seacole’s Crimea work, where she ran a restaurant/bar/store/takeaway/catering service for officers. The museum make sit into a “general store and hotel,” where she treated the sick and injured, although she missed the first three battles and so was much too late to treat many injured.
It exaggerates again but having Seacole helping “soldiers of different nationalities,” when she herself gave a very few examples of this, hardly a frequent occurrence.
It repeats the frequent mistake about her winning medals from Britain, France and Turkey, but qualifies this that she “was reputed” to have. Why not mention that there is no evidence that she did, and she herself never claimed to have?
It has phony dialogue: “I saved up my own money to travel to the Crimea to help them. [soldiers[… I cleaned the hospitals and gave the soldiers food, clothes and beds to sleep in.” This, however, is what Nightingale did, not Seacole.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
The Botanic Gardens Education Network, which credits the Thackray Museum as a source, has Seacole going “to the aid of sick and wounded soldiers in the Crimean War, armed with her traditional herbal healing remedies,” which it does not specify. Nor did Seacole say, in her book, what remedies she used. In a cholera epidemic, pre-Crimea, she did give specifics, one which included lead acetate and mercury chloride, substances toxic in any amount, with properties of dehydration, exactly what is not needed for bowel diseases. Seacole herself admitted “lamentable blunders” in those cholera remedies (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, p. 31).
An educational network that gets the science wrong! It needs a fix-up.
Gunnersbury Park Museum, Hounslow
Mary Seacole is here made into an “eminent lady doctor,” and pupils are invited to “learn the secrets” of her medicine, which in fact included such toxic substances as lead acetate and mercury chloride. Her cholera “remedy” promoted dehydration, and would have been harmful, although no worse, but in fact similar to those used by many doctors. The effective cholera treatment is the opposite to what they used: oral rehydration therapy.
By comparison, the note on Nightingale was good as far as it goes, noting her work improving the Scutari Hospital and founding nursing. However, it was no longer than that on Seacole, while Nightingale did much more, which is simply ignored, that is, her extensive work in public health care, statistics, India and women’s rights and opportunities.