Rebecca Atkinson

Invisible people

Rebecca Atkinson, 15.08.2012
How can museums work with people affected by homelessness?
There are few cities as pretty as Bath on a sunny day, but in between groups of tourists and well-heeled shoppers, you can’t help but notice a large number of men and women who are street homeless (more commonly referred to as rough sleepers).

They are just the visible face of homelessness: many more live in tents pitched in woods and parks; friends’ sofas; squats; hostels and sheltered accommodation; and, in some cases, social housing or privately-rented accommodation.

I was in Bath to visit the Holbourne Museum, which has been running weekly art classes for men and women who have experienced homelessness for the past six years.

Emma Finch, the education and outreach officer at the museum, showed me around the former gardener’s lodge where the classes are held and, over a cup of tea, shared the highs and lows, the successes and the challenges of her work – including the importance of consistency (and bacon sandwiches). 

The trip was part of my research towards an issue of Museum Practice on homelessness, which looks at the role of creative outreach programmes, giving people a voice through oral history and sustainable volunteering opportunities.

I have also taken part in a Continue Creating workshop at the Museum of London, a monthly programme linked to exhibitions and aimed at vulnerable people including those who have experienced homelessness, and went to meet Andy Williams, client involvement manager at St Mungo’s, to hear his views on how museums can help people move away from homelessness.

Most recently, I visited the British Library and met some of the participants of Writing London, a creative writing and photography project that explores London through the eyes of young people living in supported accommodation.

There is some fantastic work being carried out around homelessness (such as Out in the Open at Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, Outside In at Pallant House Gallery and the London Transport Museum’s Happy Museum project). 

Sustainably is at the heart of all this work. Relationships take time to develop and trust cannot be gained overnight, but both are easily lost unless projects are not embedded into an organisation's culture.
Finding long-term funding for work is a challenge, and of course the complex circumstances that go hand-in-hand with homelessness mean flexibility is essential if projects are to succeed.

But the benefits are very clear. Outreach and volunteering opportunities can help people affected by homelessness gain new skills and confidence, and find a way back into mainstream society.

Art classes at the Holbourne Museum are about reaching out to people who don’t necessarily see the museum as a place for them. And at the British Library, the young people I met were immensely proud to see their work (and names) on display.

For individuals that are so often ignored in mainstream culture, access to culture, creativity and even work brings huge benefits and the potential for change.

Click here to read Museum Practice on homelessness