As we reflect on 150 years of great care at The Royal Children’s Hospital and prepare for the years to come, we are reminded of our aim to improve the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents in Victoria and beyond.

In celebration of World Children’s Day, a day which recognises a child’s right to life, health, education and play, we’re launching the final exhibition in our 2020 online program – Hospital Childhoods: A home away from home.

This exhibition explores how staff at the RCH have long worked to create routines, celebrate milestones, entertain, educate and encourage children who are placed in a foreign and sometimes confronting hospital environment.

Below is a selection of photographs from the RCH collection that illustrate childhood activities at the hospital – play, naps, learning, mealtime, friendships and celebrations – recorded in an era of different medical and social attitudes. A selection of these photographs were captured at The Royal Children’s Orthopaedic Hospital in Mt Eliza, by Jozef Szczepanski, an RCH staff photographer with an eye for beautiful and candid moments.

The children pictured were often receiving treatment for debilitating childhood illnesses and eighty percent of children stayed at the orthopaedic hospital for more than a year. During the first half of the 20th century, it was normal for families to not be heavily involved with their child’s inpatient care. Parents could usually only visit once a week for a couple of hours and during epidemics, no visitors of any kind were allowed. Away from their families and homes, recovery and rehabilitation was a confronting and confusing prospect for a young child.

However, accounts from staff and patients describe an organisational focus on creating a ‘home away from home’ for these children. Staff became interim parents and emphasis was placed on ensuring children did not miss out, with onsite schooling, occupational therapy, girl guide and boy scout groups, and even sweepstakes on Melbourne Cup Day for the older children. Birthdays were always celebrated with cake and presents. Although these photographs don’t describe the full reality of this time, we can see how much care, love and focus was put into allowing children to just be children.

Since then, much has changed. In 1953, Professor Vernon Collins introduced daily visiting allowances. Today, parents are encouraged to be with their child on the ward as much as possible during their hospital stay. Parents and regular caregivers are invaluable members of their child’s care team, as they know their child best.

With current restrictions in place at the RCH due to COVID-19, we have seen the RCH team work even harder to make the hospital a safe space for all. Our clown doctors have gone virtual, Spoonville came to town and initiatives like Baby Chat kept our families connected. In 2020 we have seen innovative ideas and technology ensure our patients and families are supported throughout the pandemic and are able continue to access Great Care, Everywhere.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our online exhibitions in 2020, please feel free to reach out with any feedback or suggestions. Stay safe and thank you for your support. Lucy Beattie Hughes, RCH Art Curator.