Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service - Museums Association

Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service

Out in the Open was a series of Esmee Fairbairn Foundation-funded projects developed by Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service in 2010 to engage local people experiencing homelessness with the museums’ services.

The projects aimed to promote knowledge and understanding, and challenge stereotypes about the issues surrounding homelessness. Recognising a lack of material in the collections and displays that represented homelessness, it also aimed to collect contemporary objects and experiences from a range of individuals who had experienced accommodation issues.

Out in the Open consisted of several distinct projects, including the New Roots garden project and the Belongings photography project. The material created through all the projects was displayed as part of an exhibition trail in locations around Colchester town centre during August and September 2011.

Writing for Museum Practice on homelessness projects, Ciara Canning, senior curator at Colchester and Ipswich Museums, said: “People defined as homeless have complex needs and working with this group opened up many new challenges for the museum service in terms of social responsibility and interpretation.”

These challenges included encouraging and sustaining participation; the vulnerability of the participants and the need for the highest level of ethical care; and the difficulties in evaluating the impact of the work.

Another challenge was initial resistance from commercial organisations in Colchester to the exhibition trail, vandalism to two of the installations once on display, and some negative comments from visitors.

But there were many positive outcomes in terms of the participants’ self-esteem and enjoyment of the projects, as well as the work produced.

In Museum Practice, Canning said that the complexities of homelessness mean it’s hard to state that projects like Out in the Open can change the course of someone’s life.

But she added: “What we learnt is that if participating can help to make getting through the day a bit better, or easier or more enjoyable, then it’s worth it.”