“Stop. Reset. Cue story. Play.” The actor fiddles with a small contraption attached at the waist, adjusting a thin red cable. It coils up their body, hidden behind a high vis jacket, and remerges at the collar, connecting to an earpiece. With the unit transmitting correctly, the story of the bubble wand unfolds: “It’s a way of making joy visible”. I hear how bubbles bring happiness to children in a community facing tough times, or as it is told in the story, “really shitty times”.
Following the creation of the "streetmuseum" in September last year, the Secret Museum is the latest project developed by the award-winning Museum of Homelessness (MoH). It is an experience consisting of three parts: a search for the hidden location, a set of verbatim theatre performances and a check-in for everyone to debrief together. On the day I went, during the wrap up museum co-founder Jess Turtle commented, “that felt quite heavy”.
My group arrived late but managed to join the main assembly by following music that echoed along the concrete underground walkways that connect London Waterloo's BFI Imax roundabout to street level. The group was easy to spot because participants sported rainbow sweatbands that had been sent out in advance of the event. Seeing me approach, one person even raised their arm with a flourish and winked. I had found a fellow adventurer.
The meeting spot was poignant; the massive cinema complex inhabits what used to be called Cardboard City, named because of the many boxes that were used to construct makeshift homes for up to 200 people. It existed in London from 1978 to 1998 and was written about by the band The Levellers, which turns out to be the song that lured me to the group.
The first checkpoint was St John’s Churchyard in Waterloo. It contains a memorial to homeless people, and we were invited to light a candle and pay our respects. Recorded deaths of people who were homeless saw a sharp increase of 37% during the Covid pandemic. For me it was the first of several moments that brought me up short. A hush fell over our group before we were invited to continue our journey.
Find the flamingo
Built into the experience were light-hearted surprises too. The trail was marked by neon pink spray-painted flamingos. Hot tea was served outside, which had been donated by a member of the community. When an old telephone booth on our path started to ring, a participant stepped in to answer it and instructions were shouted back to the group, “we have to follow the bubbles!”.
This brings me to the objects on display when we found the Secret Museum. In a dark and cavernous room, displayed on open plinths were 12 everyday objects, each simply lit with a task lamp. Our attention was drawn to three objects in particular by three storytellers. I’ve already mentioned the bubble wand. The other objects included a painted portrait of a woman (which included her motto, “Never Give Up!”) and a rainbow sweatband (matching the ones worn by participants). It was the first time these three objects had been presented together, because each performance could have different configurations.
It’s an oft-repeated phrase in our trade that every object has a story. It’s true, but how meaningfully a story can be shared hangs on good interpretation. I had not experienced verbatim theatre in a museum setting before and found it very effective. Each storyteller had a donor interview played into their earpiece. They embodied the voice as they echoed the testimony to the audience. They were the conduit for the story and the person behind the story.
Projections were also cleverly used to augment the spoken word performance. Text appeared on the wall behind the storyteller as if tapped out on a typewriter. Serving as captions for those who wanted to make use of them, for me they were especially handy as trains rumbled by above us.
Unlike the neatly curated sentences tailored to fit the confines of a small object label, the live interpretation with animated text vividly brought each word to life. The raw emotion behind the words emerged. The performance helped me understand the power contained within the objects.
As each storyteller gestured at or took up the object with white gloved hands, they held your gaze. You were rapt. There was a deep connection. I experienced helplessness and resolve, fear and fury, despair and joy. I fought back tears learning about the rainbow sweatband and how LGBTQ+ homeless people had been overlooked in the government plan to bring “Everyone In” at the beginning of the pandemic.
I later asked our bubble wand storyteller, Dani, how they felt acting as a mouthpiece for someone else. They replied: “It’s quite magical really. It’s a privilege to be able to tell the donor’s story and hopefully do it justice.”
Describing the process, they added: “It does take getting used to. It’s a balance between trying to learn the story, but not learning it by heart because if I learnt it by heart, it would take something away. Every time I hear the story I'm surprised. Every time I find something different I hadn’t noticed before.”
Donors are also involved in the rehearsals. They see the final version of the object stories before they are shared by the public. This is a part of the ethical guidelines the museum adheres to when working with people’s objects and stories. Donors also retain the right to remove their object from the collection at any time should they wish to, no questions asked.
The Museum of Homelessness has been running since 2015. While they do the usual things expected of a museum, they have also been inventive and shown astounding leadership. During the pandemic, the team converted their shared office space into a food depot and emergency provision centre, delivering hundreds of thousands of meals and care packs to homeless people.
A care pack was donated to the museum by a member of the community to help capture the real story of homelessness during the pandemic. In their interview the donor declared: “There are many tragic things about what’s going on in our society. But one of them is that unless you go actively seek out the truth, you will not find it.”
Go seek out the Secret Museum. It runs until 6 November and is supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund.