Museum of Homelessness was set up and is run by people with experience of homelessness, so we do things a little differently. Nearly ten years ago when we were getting started, we talked with our core crew about how we would create exhibitions about homelessness. There were the obvious questions, what would we show? What kind of messages would we have?
“Labels will never do it justice” was the answer from the late Jimmy Carlson. Jimmy was one of our founding members. He’d spent a huge part of his life homeless, and had later become a fierce campaigner and activist. In those early days we’d meet up in our group we’d talk about the issues of the day. And on this, Jimmy was a loud voice – you can’t put labels on this subject, there are enough labels already.
Jimmy was of course talking about the ingrained stigma and bias that society has about homelessness and what we needed to do was find a different approach. Today, our exhibitions are a little bit different. At a Museum of Homelessness show you won't find objects behind glass or be asked to read labels. Instead, you'll experience live storytelling woven into an unforgettable experience. This is all designed and presented by people with experience of homelessness, showcasing the hidden talent, creativity and resourcefulness in our community.
This approach, nurtured by Jimmy and so many others is the thinking behind Secret Museum. This is how we set out to tell stories. There is no single grand narrative, or neat and tidy message. The exhibitions respond to what is happening right now and at their heart are the objects – collected from a broad range of people including support workers, activists, politicians and people affected by homelessness.
Nathan Cummins Secret Museum photo Lucinda MacPherson
With people like Jimmy involved in MoH from such an early stage it’s inevitable that we have been vocal about the political and social issues affecting our community. The statistics and real-life struggles are grim and we are not backward in coming forward about these issues. This is why you are just as likely to find us on the street organising food and supplies for people rather than working behind a desk. We also realise that this is one of the best ways of sharing truths about homelessness as a museum. People are fired up about the issues, instinctively understand how complicated it can be and want to help. It also directly informed how we thought about sharing a project about the pandemic because when it hit in 2020, MoH worked around the clock to respond – setting up a food hub, campaigning for accommodation and hitting the streets to ensure no-one was left out.
This influences our way of making shows. There is no one ‘we’ with any MoH show, the objects from a range of anonymous sources, and then presented back to the public by our talented actor storytellers, who have all been through their own struggles. The words of the interviews are relayed to the public in their words. For Secret Museum we had testimonies from people who’d slept rough in the pandemic, campaigners who’d setup mutual aid groups, Doctors who worked frantically to setup emergency care. These are voices you just don’t hear in the media but are critical to presenting a true picture of what happened in the pandemic.
The way that these stories were told was informed by the enormity of the pandemic. The artistic design of Secret Museum also referenced the confusion and search for truth that has been with us since 2020. The backdrop of misinformation and isolation that characterised the pandemic was reflected in the title and in the invitation to find the truth. To articulate this, we set half of the show outside and only gave visitors a meeting point. This directly referenced what it was like to organise outside in the pandemic. We also cascaded contextual information to visitors through our rough guide and packs, posted to people in advance of the show and dropped to sleep sites if needed. This sense of grassroots organising was directly juxtaposed by our intention to bring together a group for each show. For some who came, it was their first outing since lockdown ended and for many others COVID-19 is a tale of isolation and difficulty.
The joy of bubbles on the trail to find The Secret Museum, 6 November 2021. Pic Lucinda MacPherson
The idea of the group referenced something we saw in the pandemic, a sense of something that had been present throughout. This was a story about mutual aid, about organising together and sharing resources. During the pandemic in the UK over 4300 mutual aid groups were setup. We wanted to share a sense of the authenticity and rawness that we experienced as homeless people and activists organising during the pandemic to save lives.
The involvement of the core creative associates, the object donors, actor-storytellers and the outdoor street crew to guide an audience, created the conditions for a cultural community in action. A powerful coming together took place and no single staging of Secret Museum was the same. People who came journeyed through the streets, encountering echoes of the objects we’d collected that told a story of the pandemic before hearing them in full under the arches of Waterloo Station. The show included people on bikes, stencilled pink flamingos, tea drinking, an impromptu memorial service and finally the stories themselves. It’s variety and depth were widely noted and we were thrilled that the show had sold out before it had even opened. This and the subsequent award we won at the Museums and Heritage Awards is a testament to how the themes of the show resonated and how much people are wanting to see better news and better ways of being together. For conference attendees, we are honoured to share a little more about it here and our Pandemic on the Edge online showcase captures it in digital form for any who are interested.
Since Secret Museum closed in late 2021 our work to respond has only continued. As I write this we have just released the new findings of a 9 month investigation into how prepared UK homelessness systems are for climate change. We’re also hard at work trying to open a new space in London’s Finsbury Park later in 2023. This week the BBC has just released a programme called ‘Rental Health’ a five episode look at the rental crisis and what the UK needs to do differently. Homelessness on all counts is back on the rise and so we remain committed to doing what we can and sharing the stories of resistance and togetherness and a time of social upheaval.
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