Housing

White pants, bin bags and a light on injustice: Inside the world's first Museum of Homelessness

Jess and Matt Turtle of the Museum of Homelessness on bringing art, activism and the chance to do museums better all under one roof

Museum Of Homelessness, Finsbury Park, London.

Image: Liam Geraghty

The world’s first museum dedicated to homelessness finally has a home. And it’s probably the world’s first museum to have a black bin bag as a headline exhibit too.

The Museum of Homelessness (MOH) has existed for a decade but the search for a home has been a long one which has ironically mirrored the community it represents. Co-founders Jess and Matt Turtle have set up alongside friends from The Outside Project at the Clerkenwell Fire Station or at Streets Kitchen’s Solidarity Hub in London over the years. At one point they have even set up an exhibition on the street, displaying objects in the aptly named Street Museum. But last week they finally opened the doors of their own space at the Manor House Lodge on the edge of London’s Finsbury Park.

The museum, which is free to visit, uniquely offers a collection of objects and artefacts that tell us more about the realities of homelessness and the people who experience it. It is also a base for MOH’s community activism: to shine a light on the injustice of homelessness and challenge its existence. 

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And the message from the Turtles is already a clear one: it’s good to be home. “We really appreciate the generosity of other organisations but to have our own space means so much. It feels really good,” Jess tells Big Issue. “Everyone involved in this organisation: most of us don’t have more than one room. Suddenly we’ve got a building. I remember when we first moved in back in October, we were just running up and down the stairs all the time, going in the different rooms like, wow, really overwhelmed with all this space.

“There’s still a dream to have a residential Museum of Homelessness. So baby steps. But even though we can’t have people actually living here, it is providing an emotional home already. That really means something, I think, in the middle of a housing crisis.”

Big Issue was among the first punters to visit the MOH’s immersive experience How to Survive the Apocalypse at the former park rangers’ house before it opened to the public last week. It’s an exhibition of the kind you won’t see at one of London’s traditional museum heavyweights.

Inside the Museum of Homelessness
Inside the Museum of Homelessness. Image: Liam Geraghty

“Labels were banned quite early on and for good reason – they don’t do the stories justice,” says Matt. There are no big info dumps for you to stand there and read. And the items at the heart of it are not particularly unique or spectacular, at least on paper.

Take the bin bag. What might be rubbish (or used to transport it) for most of us becomes a vital resource for someone experiencing street homelessness. An actor performs the words of the bin bag’s owner, explaining with wit and clarity how the humble refuse sack has had “bad press” recently but is invaluable in offering protection as a poncho or hat in the rain. The bag, which was donated by the person before MOH interviewed them, is also called “the unsung hero of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s”, to a smattering of chuckles in the room.

It’s testimony to the creativity, resourcefulness and knowledge needed to survive on the streets yet so woefully missing from portrayals of homelessness in the media and popular culture. That ingenuity would be quite handy in an apocalypse too.

The bag is one of the stockpile of ‘community wisdoms’ that form MOH’s collection. Other exhibits include a pair of white pants that acted as an olive branch between a former banker newly homeless in London and a seasoned rough sleeper after the pair were thrown together in emergency accommodation. The taboo-smashing story explains how this simple item was enough to offer comfort and confidence to beat a bout of constipation and create a blossoming friendship. As they put it, “Freedom is a white pair of pants.”

“These items seem ordinary but when you mine them and you hear what people have to say then you really learn what’s happened to that person through the lens of the objects. It’s really powerful and they teach us things, particularly how to survive a crisis,” says Matt.

MOH garden crew get to work. Image: Liam Geraghty

From idea to reality

Like people from the community they are a part of and represent, moving indoors is a landmark moment for MOH. The museum’s beginnings hark right back to Jess’s childhood. She and her brother were born into a homelessness community in Cardiff and her father slept rough. “Until I went to school, I didn’t realise that others didn’t have like 40 people in their family,” she recalls. Jess moved down to London and trained and worked in the arts in a bid to take a “mainstream approach to life”. But a “full circle reconnection” came when she and Matt were asked to take a look at Simon Community’s archive – a poignant moment as her father had been involved in the charity’s beginning while he was sleeping rough.

“There was suddenly this amazing homelessness archive that actually had my dad in it and stuff that I’ve never seen before about his life on the streets,” she says. “They asked if we wanted to do a heritage project with it. We went away and this was the idea that came up. Never mind just a project, there should be a Museum of Homelessness. Why isn’t there one?”

As the Museum of Homelessness went from idea to reality, the spotlight was beginning to turn to museums in wider society with campaigners looking to decolonise and change the stereotypical idea of what a museum could be.

“How do we represent subjects that haven’t really been given proper care and attention?” says Matt. “Some of the more uncomfortable things about history: how can we represent those more fairly and equitably? MOH was one of the few new museums that have been set up. 

Matt and Jess with Jarowor Singh Rathour from the London Homeless Welfare Team
Matt and Jess with Jarowor Singh Rathour from the London Homeless Welfare Team

Direct social action

Action has always been part of MOH’s purpose. When the Bureau of Investigative Journalism could no longer continue its pioneering work on the Dying Homeless project which was instrumental in counting homeless deaths, MOH stepped up. It continues to publish annual statistics and maintains a space for people to be remembered.

In 2020, MOH set up a taskforce to look after people on the street who had not gone indoors through the Everyone In scheme, distributing food, sanitary items and more. The pandemic still looms large over the new museum space: “It was the dry run for the apocalypse,” as Matt puts it. That purpose is not about to change now they have a physical space.

“It’s not going to be like a millstone. We can still be rapid response,” says Jess. “At the moment in the background we’re doing housing deposits for people who’ve been granted asylum and made homeless by the Home Office working with Haringey Welcome. We housed another person yesterday after the first show. I think that sums up MOH: exceptional art made by the community and then the direct social action going on at the same time because in this crisis we do need both.”

A compassionate approach

The focus on the apocalypse is no far-flung dystopian fantasy story. As far as MOH is concerned, the apocalypse might as well be now.

Fresh out of a pandemic, the idea that the Everyone In scheme – that saw more than 37,000 people off the streets and into hotels during Covid – solved homelessness is a “myth”, says Jess. Since the Everyone In scheme ended, “multiple overlapping kinds of crisis” have sent homelessness numbers soaring across the UK, both in terms of street homelessness and the number of households stuck in temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, the Tory party that earned praise for its quick
reaction when Covid struck is now being criticised for failing to hit its manifesto promise to end rough sleeping this year and a Criminal Justice Bill that, until recently, criminalised rough sleepers over ‘smell’.

“One of our community members is still stuck in hotel rooms. A hotel room is not a home, it’s a good public health measure but it’s not a home,” she adds. “I remember one guy said: ‘It took me four years to not sleep on the floor and get in the bed.’ The trauma that comes with homelessness takes so much to undo and patient care for the person and the people around them. None of that was thought about.

MOH volunteers doing outreach work during the pandemic
MOH volunteers doing outreach work during the pandemic

“It is almost like the system didn’t know what to do with everyone. We don’t have a compassionate approach. It’s not baked into the system and needs to be if it’s going to end homelessness. 

Funded by a mix of individual funders, one corporate backer as well as trusts and foundations, MOH remains fiercely independent, but now employs 15 people with experience of homelessness. Collecting objects of importance and sharing stories is vital to any museum but has a particular resonance for MOH.

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“When you look at historical records of homelessness up to this work that we’re doing, very rarely there are first-person accounts, it’s normally documented through the lens of someone else or an institution,” says Jess. “So what we’d really like for this work in 100 years is for historians to be able to actually hear what it was like in a pandemic from our community’s perspective. We won’t live to see that but it’s something we’re working towards. It’s important for the future.”

The Museum of Homelessness is open to anyone to visit with a pre-booked ticket most Fridays and Saturdays.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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