My first thought, when Elen held up the slip of paper and called out my name and “The tokens”, was “Oh no!” Does that sound ungrateful? The tokens are the big prize, surely, the objects known to all Foundling Museum visitors. What’s my problem?
There is no problem. Mixed emotions are normal. The initial sense of being daunted passes and I know I want to respect the spirit of the mothers and children represented by these tokens – and their mixed feelings too. So I return to the Foundling and spend time at the cabinets looking at the assorted coins, bracelets, locks, twists of wool, pieces of cheap jewellery.
I’m finding the whole project an extraordinary way to reconnect with my childhood. The Foundling is halfway between the flat where I was born and the primary school I attended until I was 11. Coram Fields was where I played football for my school team. These streets – particularly Judd Street and Lamb’s Conduit Street – have such strong family connections for me. The memories bring home my own good fortune in growing up with a mum and dad, in not being a foundling, in never in adult life having to make a decision like those mothers made when they handed over a token and a baby, probably never to be seen again.
Handed over. I wondered if the exchange involved any kind of legal contract, but apparently not. Yet the token itself is like a contract, an object of little intrinsic value given as a receipt for a life. Is the life of a foundling child of no value or beyond value? I imagined the mixed, contradictory feelings felt by everyone, especially the mothers. Your child will be safe – your child will be lost to you. Will you be full of gratitude or grief, anger or relief?
I wanted to capture that ambivalence and frame it in legal language that, this time, would not hide the emotion. I wanted an element of catechism too, thinking that those foundling children were governed by benefactors steeped in both law and religion.
But I also needed to narrow the focus down to one child, one mother, one token – one token to stand for all. Of the tokens there is a lock that strikes me as poignant. Why a lock, what did it mean, did she throw away the key? We might expect locks of another kind – a mother’s or a baby’s lock of hair – but this lock is hard metal. It’s unforgiving. But centuries on it unlocks a whole range of emotions.
I take away:
regrets, tears, emptiness
in exchange for this token
hope, fears, bitterness.
a memory that will fade
this lock with no key.
a swatch of fabric.
for I am resentful
my love, my God-bless
for I am grateful.
this lock, metal not hair,
for I have nothing left to keep.