To all Westminster MPs re National Portrait Gallery

Dear Member of Parliament

The National Portrait Gallery is a major national institution, largely funded by British taxpayers. High standards of accuracy and fairness are expected in the material it produces in support of its exhibitions. In the case of Mary Seacole, it fails.Naturally the NPG was pleased, in 2005, to acquire a fine painting of Seacole. However in announcing that acquisition, and in celebrating the bicentenary of Seacole’s life that same year, it became a purveyor of misinformation. The portrait shows Seacole wearing 3 medals–none of which she earned. There are seven pictures of Seacole on the website, six of them with medals (on one she wears 4 medals). In three places on the website the medals are referred to as if they were hers, and an exercise for children invites them to design yet another Seacole medal!

Two banners of portraits hang outside the entrance: one of the Duke of Wellington wearing his medals, the other of Seacole wearing medals which were not hers.

In 2006 the NPG named Seacole one of “Ten Great Britons,” on the 150th anniversary of its founding. Again those medals appear, again with no explanation that they were not hers. It was not a criminal offence to wear other people’s medal at the time Mrs Seacole wore them–it is now. That 2006 award places her in the company of Shakespeare, Darwin, Walter Scott, Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill.

Mrs Seacole was indeed a remarkable woman who led an adventurous life that deserves to be celebrated. But why not describe her and her contributions as they were? Why give her credit for the contributions of the real founder of the modern profession of nursing–Florence Nightingale? And why underplay and misstate what Nightingale did, as the comparison with Seacole does?

The bicentenary of the birth of Nightingale will take place in 2020, and people around the world will remember her work to establish nursing, reform hospitals and promote public health care. The National Portrait Gallery was asked to recognize that bicentenary, and refused. The director explained that people wanting to see a Nightingale portrait could come in and see one as usual.

The NPG has a number of portraits of Nightingale and the people with whom she worked to achieve such great social and public health care reforms. Does it lack curatorial ability and imagination? Why not show the wonderful collaboration of Nightingale with leading reformers that led to so much good?

Yours sincerely

[17 members of the Nightingale Society]

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