Museum activism

Sharon Heal, 12.04.2017
How museums are addressing homelessness
Do you know how many homeless people there are in the UK? No?

You’re not alone – in fact there is no official figure – partly because it is counted differently across the four nations and partly because what homeless charity Crisis calls “hidden homelessness”, which can include people rough sleeping, sofa-surfing, squatting, or living temporarily in bed and breakfasts, makes it difficult to obtain accurate statistics.

But we all know, from our own high streets and town centres, that visible homelessness – people sleeping rough on the streets - is on the rise.

I was struck recently on a visit to Preston by the number of people hunkered in closed shop doorways as I walked up Fishergate from the train station to the Harris Museum and Art Gallery.

It was a reminder of the impact of benefit changes and how quickly proud cities and people can be brought down.

But can this stuff be the subject of museums? Evidently so as I discovered when I reached the Harris and encountered its photographic exhibition in partnership with the Foxton Centre, which works directly with people who have experience of homelessness.

It was reassuring to encounter an organisation that doesn’t shy away form the issues that are, literally, on its doorstep.

At the weekend I encountered the same topic from a different angle at the State of the Nation event run by the Museum of Homelessness.

This radical new institution brought together discussion, debate, installations and performance to explore homelessness and what it means in 2017. But this was more than a temporary exhibition or a one-off show.

The museum, which does not yet have a home, created a temporary space where activists, members of the public, and people with experience of homelessness could come together.

The discussions and debate about how organisations and society respond to homelessness were sharp and topical. The object storytelling session brought the artefacts of everyday experience to life.

A Soldier’s Story by David Tovey linked the lives, often brutal and scarred, of ex-military personnel and exposed the connection between their careers and homelessness. The Choir with No Name and the Academy of St Martins in the Fields brought composition and harmony to a difficult subject.

And the finale, also by Tovey, who has himself experienced homelessness, was the Man on a Bench fashion show with costumes and characters created from the discarded materials of the streets.

It was one of the most challenging, joyful and illuminating experiences I have ever had in a museum. It was museum activism writ large and it was possible to see change happening. This is the museum of the future.

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