pouch of tobacoo, one of the object stories

The Museum of Homelessness exhibits objects (“Pouch of Tobacco”, above) alongside live re-tellings of stories related to each piece. Photo: Museum of Homelessness

“At the beginning of the pandemic, people were talking as if it could lead to a real change in how we operate in society and the things we value,” says Jessica Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, a community-led institution that focuses on the culture and heritage of homelessness, alongside lobbying and direct action. “Sadly, so far I’m seeing little to support that.”

The window of hope around the societal implications of COVID-19 is closing fast. If the move towards working from home proves long-lasting, there will be more empty office spaces available in our cities than ever, which could, theoretically, be repurposed as free accommodation. But the existence of empty commercial spaces doesn’t necessarily mean they will be put to good use. According to Maeve McClenaghan’s excellent new non-fiction book on homelessness, No Fixed Abode, prior to COVID-19 there were six empty buildings in London for every single person sleeping rough. As our city centres empty out, this ratio is likely to grow.

“We’ve already seen property developers submitting applications to change disused retail spaces into awful, tiny, rabbit hutch-style housing,” says Jessica. “Rather than an opportunity to make change for the better, we’re going to have more slum housing that benefits the few.”

Since the pandemic began, we’ve already seen a sharp increase in homelessness, a situation that is only set to worsen with the end of both the temporary eviction ban and the furlough scheme.

The Museum of Homelessness, founded in 2015, is part of a growing scene of social justice museums emerging across the UK, including Queerseum (an LGBT-themed institution with which it’s in close partnership), the Museum of Transology (focused on transgender issues), the Museum of British Colonialism, the Vagina Museum, the Museum of Neoliberalism and the Museum of Migration.

Back in February, I attended one of their events, to find out why the project is necessary and what this new movement tells us about the failures of established museums.

Inside the Museum of Homelessness.

Inside the Museum of Homelessness, by author.

The Museum of Homelessness and Queerseum share a creative residency in the Outside Project, an LGBTQI community space in a disused fire-station in Clerkenwell. Doubling as a residential shelter, it’s decked out with bright pink beds, electric heaters, shelves rammed with books, electric heaters and DIY decorations hanging from from the ceiling.

The centrepiece of the museum’s exhibition, titled “Ten Years of Truth”,  is an intricate timeline of headlines, government policies and statistics. The problem of homelessness is contextualised in relation to austerity measures, the housing crisis and the hostile environment.

Next to this display lies an installation comprising the first person recollections of people who have used the shelter. This reveals the impact government measures have had on individual lives, the painful relationship between the structural and the personal. “It’s a dark show,” says Matt Turtle, the museum’s second co-founder, “but it has hope in it. The groups using the Centre are collaborative, they’re reacting against this climate and resisting. That’s a really positive thing.”

Where the Museum of Homelessness is truly innovative, however, is its use of “object stories” — live performances of narratives from people at the heart of the crisis. This idea was first thought up during a meeting with the core group of organisers, almost all of whom have direct experience of homelessness.

“We said to the group, ‘Normally museums take an object and write a label for it,’” says Jessica. “And they all said, ‘No, we’re not having labels. We’ve been labelled all our lives.’ So we decided to rethink this, and together we came up with the idea of people choosing one object and telling a story about it. We’d then record that and get our storytellers to relay it in the person’s exact words.”

An ASBO notice, one of the object stories.

An ASBO notice, exhibited as one of the object stories.

Of the four object stories I heard that day, the one I found most moving concerned a home-made walking stick. It was performed by Sherry, an actor, who’s listening to the story through earphones as she speaks.

The story concerns someone with a debilitating back injury who accidentally leaves their crutches on a bus. It’s a terrible predicament, but they manage to find a large branch in a nearby garden and craft it into a walking stick. Later, they add a decorative snake’s head to the top. “It can be used as a defensive weapon,” Sherry recites. “The snake’s head is looking back over my shoulder so I felt secure with it around. It’s got a bit of a Gandalf vibe. Out of something so simple and humble, things can progress.”

“It’s about being a voice for people out there who don’t have one,” Sherry tells me after the performance. “The stories that we’re telling are coming from very vulnerable places, and I think it would be hard for the people themselves to tell them. The fact that we’re able to do it for them provides a protective factor.”

For Matt and Jessica, it’s important the Museum centres people with lived experience (and that everyone who works with them is paid a living wage). This way, people experiencing homelessness are the curators and custodians of the museum, rather than its subjects. “Otherwise,” says Jessica, “it could so easily have been this voyeuristic, exploitative space where people came to look at homeless people. We’ve really tried to be careful about how we think of it, because curators hold so much power.”

A photo of "The Stick", the subject of one of the "object stories".

‘The Stick’, exhibited as one of the object stories.

In a “bread and roses” kind of way, the museum embodies the idea that the goals of activism shouldn’t be limited to baseline survival. Marginalised communities deserve spaces for reflection, the preservation of their heritage and the kind of dignity that careful attention affords. As it stands, established museums aren’t doing a good enough job at any of this.

While this is a problem, it’s not necessarily a terminal one. Nathalie Olah, author of Steal as Much as You Can, an incisive polemic about contemporary culture, argues that we should look outside of established institutions for legitimacy.

“We hear complaints being made all the time about the exclusionary hiring practises and programming of the legacy cultural institutions,” she says. “But I think the framing of the issue is incorrect. We can’t expect museums whose histories are steeped in elitism and oppression to be the voice of a new culture being ushered in. We need to mount alternatives, and starve the legacy institutions of their revenue. This is why these smaller museums are so interesting.”

Refusing to accept money from the government – instead relying on donations and grants from larger charities – allows The Museum of Homelessness an extra level of independence. The project proves that it isn’t necessary to beg for recognition or legitimacy from mainstream institutions, because it’s possible to create these things for ourselves. As Jessica says, “If there isn’t a museum that represents your community, then make one.”

As important as its archival and creative work is, when the pandemic hit, the museum quickly re-focused its efforts. “We repurposed all our activities to practical support and campaigning around coronavirus and homelessness,” says Jessica. “We petitioned the government to open up hotels to house people, which later became national policy.”

Unfortunately, the museum has had to leave its home at the Outside Project and is currently looking for a new space (I’m not sure how many VICE readers will have spare gallery space lying around, but if you do, please contact the museum here). While they wait for a permanent space, they’re taking the museum to the street in weekly events dubbed “Street Museum”, which double up as a way to provide people with a hot meal.

In many ways, the future is looking bleak. “I fear it could be one of the worst winters for homelessness in living memory,” says Jessica. But the response to the pandemic has shown the power of grassroots organising. Faced with a lacklustre response from the state, communities have banded together and achieved a great deal.

Going forward, the plan is to continue making things happen at a grassroots level, rather than waiting for COVID-19 to magically turn a country with a Conservative majority into a socialist utopia. “We’ve got to have a bit of hope,” says Jessica, “or else we’re just the Misery Museum.”