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Secret Museum to tell ‘true’ impact on homelessness during pandemic

Homelessness in the UK is on the rise year-on-year but in March 2020 as the World Health Organisation announced COVID-19 as a pandemic it seemed that finally the problem was going to be addressed in a meaningful way – but what really happened?

To find out the Museum of Homelessness (MoH) has created a temporary Secret Museum that will reveal to visitors the real experiences of people on the margins of society during the pandemic.

Opening on 27 October for 11 days in a hidden location in London, the Secret Museum will be an immersive, interactive experience with objects and stories from activists, community organisers and people who live ‘at the edge of inequality’.

Secret Museum is providing an alternative to a lot of the headlines and soundbites we saw about homelessness in 2020

MoH says it is a Secret Museum because too often the truth about homelessness is kept secret from the public and in order for them to discover the reality they have to actively seek it.

So, in order to take part and hear the precious stories of those experiencing homelessness, visitors will need to find the Secret Museum by following a trail of clues to the venue. There they will find ‘a world of solidarity and underground organising, where the collective aim during 2020 was to save lives and uphold people’s human rights’.

Everyone In initiative

The Secret Museum will take place exactly 18 months after the UK Government launched its Everyone In initiative where it instructed local authorities across the country to ensure that people sleeping rough were safely accommodated to protect them, and the wider public, from the risks of Covid-19.

This resulted in local authorities block booking hotels, B&Bs, student accommodation and holiday homes to bring the homeless into safe places from March 2020.

An estimated 37,000 people were protected from the perils of rough sleeping during the Covid-19 pandemic. The government said: “The Everyone In initiative has been universally credited with protecting rough sleepers and saving lives during the Covid-19 emergency.” But acknowledged that: “There is a concern that, without further action to address the underlying causes of homelessness, levels of homelessness may surge as the Government’s temporary coronavirus housing, welfare and employment support measures come to an end.”

According to the homelessness charity Crisis more than 200,000 families and individuals in England alone are experiencing homelessness. “Many people already living with financial pressures made worse by the coronavirus pandemic have been pushed over the brink into homelessness and are finding themselves sleeping on the streets, hunkered down in sheds and garages, stuck in unsuitable accommodation or sofa surfing.”

The Museum of Homelessness delivered care packs to homeless people during lockdown providing food, toiletries and gifts

MoH founders Matt and Jess Turtle say the Everyone In scheme was presented as an opportunity to completely change the homelessness system and the way different organisations work with homeless people.

But in reality they say it was a scheme that many people were excluded from and rather than being a far-reaching plan to end homelessness Everyone In has become a worn out soundbite.

“We want to ensure that history is not just written by people who have power and resources – the Secret Museum story is not something you’d see on a government press release or in a typical feature in the media,” says Matt.

“A lot was said about homelessness last year but the real picture is much more complicated. Secret Museum is providing an alternative to a lot of the headlines and soundbites we saw about homelessness in 2020. We also want to offer people something that’s fun and that brings everyone together, after everything we’ve all been through in the past 18 months.”

Tackling homelessness and housing inequality

MoH is an independent museum and community established in 2015 with a commitment to creating exhibitions, projects and performances. It is also committed to tackling homelessness and housing inequality by amplifying the voices of its community through research.

During the first lockdown in spring 2020 the MoH taskforce partners took over an empty community centre and prepared and dispatched 8,956 care packs and nutritious meals to people in the emergency accommodation and to people on the streets.

A toy flamingo was part of the Museum of Homelessness’s care packs and has now become the mascot for the Secret Museum

The Secret Museum is its most ambitious museum project to date and is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of its Reframe the Narrative project.

“The pandemic is one of the most seismic things the UK has faced in the last 100 years and to have the opportunity to explore and share this experience is important for our role as a Museum of Homelessness. It will bring more objects into our collection, help us reach new people and also amplifies a lot of the campaigning and research we are doing – for example our work on the Dying Homeless Project.”

The Dying Homeless Project is a long-term project that remembers the stories and lives of people who die homeless in the UK. As well as being a memorial, the project is also an ongoing campaign for change.

Object donations

For the Secret Museum the MoH has received a number of object donations including a flamingo, which has become the logo for the Secret Museum. The toy mascot was put into care packs produced by MoH and sent to homeless families in East London during lockdown. “This is such an important part of lockdown; the positive action communities took to help each other.”

Other objects tell very different stories such as a Levellers LP donated by a doctor for patients experiencing homelessness and whose story in the exhibition talks about what it was like to organise the medical triaging system for different hotels for people coming in off the streets during the pandemic.

Many objects with stories have been donated to the Secret Museum such as this Levellers LP and will become part of the permanent collection

“Our exhibition projects have always had an interactive feel to them because we collect real-life stories and objects. Both those things are shared with audiences through performance – so there is always a lot of conversation and a lot of back and forth.

“This time though, we wanted to give people a collective experience after the isolation of the pandemic, and share a sense of what it was like to search for supplies and support on the streets in lockdown. People who book will even receive a special pack in the post if they book early enough.

“These little touches – meeting outside, receiving a special pack in the post – are about recreating that sense of what it was like to be organising [relief] in a pandemic and to be part of that world.”

Challenging the narrative

Telling these stories and challenging the narrative around the Everyone In scheme in a curated way, using the outdoors and a temporary museum setting is important to the representation of the homeless people’s plight.

In a story found in a Care Pack donated to the show, the object donor says that: “There are many tragic things about what’s going on in our society. But one of them is that unless you actively seek out the truth, you will not find it.”

“That quote really sums up what we are trying to with the show, we are trying to bring people together and, in many ways, this feels like one of the first opportunities to reckon with the legacy of the pandemic in terms of how it affected homeless people. The temporary museum setting offers a different space to have these discussions, and to ask the questions that need to be asked.”

Homeless taskforce

To organise the Secret Museum MoH has worked the partners it established during lockdown to form the COVID-19 Homeless taskforce. These groups include the Outside Project, Union Chapel, Simon Community and Streets Kitchen.

There have also been many partnerships including grassroots homelessness groups, cultural organisations and human rights organisations.

They have enjoyed the support of St John’s Waterloo, Liberty, the New Diorama Arts Centre, RCA, Public Interest Law Centre, Liberty, Shelter, Magpie Project, Tricky Period, Showerbox and Street Storage.

The MoH is itself without a permanent home but hopes to announce a new site for the Museum of Homelessness in 2022.

Secret Museum takes place from 27 October to 6 November and is free. Tickets can be booked on eventbrite.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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