Out in the Open - the bedsit garden located outside Hollytrees Museum, part of Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service

Exploring issues around homelessness

Ciara Canning, 15.10.2012
Ciara Canning shares some of the challenges Colchester and Ipswich Museums faced in its work with homeless people
Homelessness isn't easy to define. It includes anyone living in insecure or substandard accommodation; for example, people sleeping rough, in squats, hostels, refuges or on friends’ sofas.

In 2010 Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service developed Out in the Open, a series of projects designed to engage local people experiencing homelessness with the museums’ services. The projects also aimed to promote knowledge, understanding and challenge stereotypes about the issues surrounding homelessness.

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.


Encouraging and sustaining participation was an issue from the beginning because the complex problems experienced by homeless people meant that taking part in a museum project was often bottom of their priorities.

Relationship building was therefore fundamental and each project took a person-centred approach. Activities were also kept flexible to respond to different levels of interest and ability.

Staff at partner organisations encouraged their clients to take part. Many homeless people have mobile phones so we used texts to follow up interest and send reminders about sessions.

The transient nature of homelessness was a particular challenge in the New Roots gardening project, which ran over seven months.

Two night-shelter residents came independently to the first allotment session after seeing posters. However, both moved to other towns in the early weeks of the project, which made it difficult for them to continue to participate.

In total, 32 people took part in the gardening project; seven came to multiple sessions and participants developed ownership of the project. For example, Michael came regularly in his own time to water the bedsit garden and talk to visitors about the project.


The vulnerability of the participants and the sensitivity of the subject matter demanded the highest level of ethical care and attention to detail.

Homeless people often have authority imposed on them, so it was intrinsic to Out in the Open that participants had full knowledge, choice and control about how their work would be displayed.

For example, in Life’s Rich Tapestry, a textile project, a resident from the women’s refuge wanted to share her life-changing experience of asking the hairdresser to cut off her long hair.

This event provided her with immense freedom as it meant her abuser hadn’t touched a single hair on her head. However, she was afraid that a photograph of the back of her head to illustrate the experience might allow her to be traced. The option of using a photo of a model with a similar haircut removed her fears and meant that she felt secure about the way she was represented.

People who live chaotic and transient lives tend to have very little in terms of objects or possessions. This became pertinent in the photography project, Belongings, which explored people’s stories through significant objects.

For many participants, the object which illustrated their story was so precious to them that they felt unable to part with it for the duration of the display.

Instead, photographer Anthony Luvera worked with 19 people to produce assisted self-portraits of participants holding their chosen significant object.


The outcomes from the different projects were displayed in a temporary exhibition trail. Installations were placed in the museum and in various outdoor locations around Colchester town centre during the summer of 2011.

Finding display areas was difficult and involved breaking down stereotypes.

There was considerable resistance to the idea of displaying images of homeless people in the town centre, as commercial managers believed it would offend and deter shoppers.

But developing key partnerships with individuals in the council, local homelessness organisations and church groups that were willing to take a chance provided a breakthrough. The sites chosen were important to participants – for example, areas where people gather and the soup-run stop.

Once on display, the artworks provoked strong reactions – not always positive.

Two of the installations in the town centre had to be relocated because of ongoing vandalism. We kept a photographic record of the vandalism and actively repaired, reprinted and cleaned the artworks regularly to discourage it.

The depth of feeling showed that people were engaging with the issues and the outdoor locations exposed the work to a larger audience, not just traditional museum visitors.


Evaluating the success of a project such as Out in the Open is difficult as statistics alone can’t tell the whole story. For example, 21 people took part in Life’s Rich Tapestry but the real impact could be seen through subtle changes in the participants.

For example, Crissy took home her sewing to finish in her own time. This may not seem remarkable but she had initially been reluctant to take part in the project at all.

Katrina found that the project reignited her love of art and improved her self-belief. Following the project she applied for a place at Essex University to do a degree in fine art using pieces she produced for the project as part of her interview portfolio.

Catherine came independently to the museum to donate her Refuge Rabbit soft toy artwork to the collection. This was hugely significant as the toy provided her with comfort and support during her time at the refuge and held extreme sentimental value.

It is now on permanent display in Hollytrees Museum childhood gallery.

Although there were many positive outcomes, there were also tragic events.

Sheila, who took part in the Belongings photography project, killed herself six months after the project finished. She had suffered from dependency problems and depression for over 20 years.

In the evaluation, Sheila said how participating in Belongings had improved her self confidence and encouraged her to seek help for her “winter blues”. We don’t know if there was a particular trigger which led her to suicide.

Bob, also a Belongings participant, died suddenly in April 2012. As part of the project he recorded an oral history, which we gave to his daughter. This was particularly precious as she had no other recordings of him speaking.

These tragic deaths were hugely upsetting and challenged the nature of projects such as Out in the Open.

It is clear that participants enjoyed taking part; they wouldn’t have continued to turn up if they hadn’t found it positive in some way. But it would be wrong to think that taking part in a museum project can change the course of someone’s life.

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.

Ciara Canning is senior curator at Colchester and Ipswich Museums. Detailed information about the individual projects can be found on the Out in the Open website and an evaluation report conducted by independent consultant Llewela Selfridge is also available online (pdf).


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Lydia Saul
MA Member
Keeper of Social History, Higgins Art Gallery
19.10.2012, 16:00
I heard Ciara speak passionately about this project at the Social History Curator's Group Conference at Cardiff earlier this year and was most impressed with this particular project. She and her colleagues deserve praise and recognition for the brave and sensitive way they interpreted and engaged with homeless individuals in Colchester throughout the project and it is a great example for all of us in Museums to be as inclusive as we can be to all.