Museum of Homelessness: A Radical New Approach to Museum Making
As the Museum of Homelessness prototyping phase comes to an end we’re reflecting on the role that museums can play in people’s lives, the impact they can have on wider society and the role for a Museum of Homelessness. As we do so, it’s impossible to ignore the wider context. The referendum campaign on the UK’s membership of the EU has revealed the darkest fault lines of our society. There is no doubt that this is inherently linked to a global situation, which sees the highest ever number of displaced people – 63.5m at the end of 2015. In the UK, against a backdrop of public sector cuts, the homelessness sector is struggling to respond to the increasing numbers of those who find themselves homeless – a 102% increase in rough sleeping alone since 2010.
It is in this context that we have collectively decided what the Museum of Homelessness should collect, create and share. We hosted six weeks of workshops with people who have been homeless, homelessness sector workers, experts in the field of trauma and museum professionals. We were very kindly hosted for a day by the brilliant Museum of Liverpool, and went to Denmark to discuss the same questions with staff at the inspirational Danish Welfare Museum, homeless people, activists and homelessness sector workers.
The results of this are a small core team of people who will take the organisation forward, a wider group of supporters and volunteers, some big ambitions and a whole lot of learning about museums and their role in society.
The status that comes with a museum and with a national collection should not be underestimated. Recently, one person who we are working with stopped co-founder Matt and I on the street to tell us that he felt acknowledged for the first time in his life. However, the cultural capital that museums hold is linked to institutional power and on the flip side many people feel they are not able to access collections and spaces. For this reason, museums – and the wider cultural sector – sometimes frame people as ‘hard to reach.’ This is nonsense. It is perfectly possible to demystify museum practice and create a cultural space where people with all kinds of backgrounds are able to take up membership authentically. If ‘cultural literacy’ is perceived to be an issue, then rewrite the script. From day one, our project volunteers, who had no previous experience, were carrying out curatorial work – writing museum standard captions, theming a small exhibition, predicting audience responses and selecting & interpreting objects. We will be seeking a base to make this type of cultural space a permanent reality.
Another type of power that is more widely discussed in the museums world is the power of the object. Our sessions have demonstrated that working with objects can trigger deep emotional reactions for everyone involved – not only those with experience of homelessness. Our research had indicated this, but experiencing it was quite profound. The Museum of Homelessness has a psychotherapist on the core team and therapeutic facilitation as part of its core curatorial approach. We would recommend that other museums working in a similar way consider this too.
We have a duty to ensure that our people centred work is practised safely – something that the homelessness sector recognises as fundamental. Just as there are many ways into homelessness, there are many routes out of it and a highly individualised approach is needed. As museums move into more socially engaged practice, it is vital that they learn from other fields with decades of experience. We have learnt a lot from our partner Groundswell during this project and we are grateful for their support.
So as we close our Paul Hamlyn Foundation grant period, our small team of volunteers has ambitious plans for the next three years. We will be seeking a base with collection storage and workshop space to properly begin our unique approach to making a museum. We are setting up a collections panel in response to offers that we are receiving from across the UK. We will launch our public programme in Tate’s new Switch House building in early 2017 and we’ve collectively decided the themes, events and installations for that programme – full announcement due in September.
Our longer term aim is a permanent public building, but with a programme that reaches across the UK to respond to local contexts, working in partnership with other museums and with homelessness organisations. All of this will be achieved with people who have been homeless at the heart of it, driving the process and making decisions. Since the 1950s, there has been a tradition of ordinary men and women, some of them homeless, rising up to make change. This is documented in hidden archives and people’s memories, but not celebrated enough. Sharing these stories could well inspire others in similar situations to do the same. We will be building upon this theme in our work in the coming years. Another thing that we have discussed at length is how to share the inevitable deep sadness that is part of homelessness. As well as celebrating, there is a need to commemorate and to mark people and places that are no longer with us and that passed largely un-noticed. We need to question why this continues to happen today. This too will be part of our work together. Our collection and programme will be built around themes of faith & belief, enterprise, creativity and control. We will explore the sad, the humorous and the inspirational sides of homelessness, the policies and their impact, the people and the places.
We are aware that our approach is viewed by some as radical for a museum. However, to us, it is simply a continuation of the tradition of people making things happen despite – or perhaps because of – the challenging circumstances that we continue to find ourselves in.