Challenging museum conventions

Matt Turtle, 117.04, p16, 01.03.2017
How the Museum of Homelessness places lived experience at the centre of its work
In the past couple of years, the Museum of Homelessness has grown from an idea into a charity that involves a range of people in different ways.

Along the way, we’ve made a big deal of our aim to place lived experience at the core of our work. But how do we do it, and do we do it well?

Since the beginning, we have payed close attention to the idea of how values can become “lived” by people in an organisation. We were initially inspired by the idea of the therapeutic community.

These are planned environments where the therapeutic aspects of a group are used constructively to encourage a sense of community and social learning, and to assist with the unlocking of trauma that comes when you tackle homelessness head on.

Museums can do a lot to combat social isolation, stigmatisation, mental health issues and economic inequalities. However, participation is often restricted. Economic, cultural and psychological barriers are well documented, so the idea was that by creating a group loosely informed by the practices you see in a therapeutic community, we could make an environment where people plan and deliver artistic and cultural outputs, and take up membership of the organisation authentically.

In June 2016, this thinking led to the creation of our core group, which meets regularly to discuss the museum’s plans and to make decisions about what we do. We’re not a therapeutic community, but we do work with a clinical supervisor.

His check-ins ensure that we implement reflective practice and keep an eye on where the power lies. The meeting structure formalises observance of the Museum of Homelessness’s ethics, and allows us to pay attention to all our roles.

Leadership, in this context, means devolving power while meeting statutory requirements as delegated by our board of trustees. It also means holding a space for people to engage with when the moment is right, in a way that works for them and makes sure the door is always open. This is not easy and is a work in progress.

Along the way, we’ve learned that there is no one-size-fits-all to this work. By joining the group and making the Museum of Homelessness happen, it is clear what people are giving. But what is it they are getting?

That is a question that keeps us moving forward. In order to effectively work with people at various stages on the journey out of homelessness, our museum tries to find different points of engagement.

This plays out in different ways for different people. For example, the museum’s first print article was authored by one of our group members. Others have become involved through artistic projects. For some, developing a national collection is a new way of shining a light on injustice and inequality.

Until now, we have focused our attention on people, relationships and partners, and ensuring that what we do is both needed and wanted. In this respect, I think that we have achieved a lot – and do our work well. Perhaps the most substantive evidence of this will be unveiled this month at Tate Exchange.

This weekend has a sense of urgency; homelessness across the UK has exploded in the past few years. In the summer of 2016, our group decided that we needed to use Tate Exchange to talk about homelessness now.

There was no business plan or project initiation document that fed into this. The process is a direct response to need and the product of informal conversations among the group, and with people we know in day centres, hostels, winter shelters and squats.

In this sense, the Museum of Homelessness is removing the formalities through which some cultural organisations operate, and we are seeing evidence that our programme “speaks” to those who might never step inside a museum or gallery.

We hope our work can play a role in changing how marginalised people both develop and access museums.

Matt Turtle is one of the founders of the Museum of Homelessness.