"We Don't Do Objects Behind Glass" - London's Museum Of Homelessness

By Jess Turtle Last edited 18 months ago

Last Updated 25 January 2023

"We Don't Do Objects Behind Glass" - London's Museum Of Homelessness

London has had a Museum of Homelessness since 2015, but in summer 2023 it's getting a place of its own, in Finsbury Park. Co-founder Jess Turtle explains how this is not your ordinary museum.

Museum of Homelessness team outside what will be their new bricks and mortar museum in Finsbury Park. Image: Matt Turtle.

Museum of Homelessness was set up and is run by people with experience of homelessness, so we do things a little differently.

You are more likely to find us on the street organising food and supplies for people rather than working behind a desk.

Our exhibitions are a little bit different too. At a Museum of Homelessness show you won't find objects behind glass or be asked to read labels. Instead, you'll experience live storytelling woven into an unforgettable experience. This is all designed and presented by people with experience of homelessness, showcasing the hidden talent, creativity and resourcefulness in our community.

A woman, speaking, mid performance in the dark
Nell Hard performs at Secret Museum. Image: Anthony Luvera.

For our most recent exhibition, Secret Museum, we made a hidden installation in tunnels underneath Waterloo station. Inside the museum were objects and stories from people who were homeless or working at the sharp edge of inequality during the pandemic.

To hear these precious stories, our audience had to find us! We left a trail of clues for them in the streets of London and people had an unforgettable experience. Secret Museum subsequently won Temporary or Touring Exhibition of the Year at the Museum and Heritage Awards, which was huge for us as a tiny organisation.

Museum of Homelessness founders, Jess and Matt Turtle outside Manor House Lodge, where the museum will be based for at least 10 years. Image: Anthony Luvera.

We are doing three things simultaneously really. Documenting history and trying to change things for a better future whilst taking action today. In the last few years there have been some new museums founded that are setting up to change history. In London we have the Vagina Museum, the Museum of Neoliberalism and Queer Britain as well as us. I would say all of these are shaping history whilst documenting it. We are proud to be a part of this wave.

The Museum of Homelessness' mission has become more urgent. Not only are the numbers of people experiencing homelessness increasing but we are amid a real crisis, on so many levels. For example, through our Dying Homeless Project we documented a devastating 80% increase in deaths in our community (across the UK) over the last two years. People are really struggling. Since we set Museum of Homelessness up, we have seen how our community building, campaigning and creative work can save lives.

People walking down a street at night with supplies
Museum of Homelessness volunteers doing outreach in the West End during the pandemic.

It means everything to us to finally be opening our own building. We've achieved a lot in our seven years without a dedicated space, so we are excited to see what the community can do on our own site. In our search for a building we've been to many corners of London and this site was the one that stood out. We are grateful to Haringey Council for partnering with us and looking forward to working in Finsbury Park which has a radical history. The community are gathering for regular creative planning sessions whilst we wait for the site to be ready.

A group of people gathered in front of Nelson's Column and a huge Christmas tree
A Museum of Homelessness taskforce in Trafalgar Square on Christmas Morning.

The new museum will have a focus on community activity. Having a site to put down roots in will allow us to do more, especially for residents of Haringey, Hackney and Islington.

For example, nearby is a hostel with 130 homeless families living in it; we want to make sure the site and its outdoor space can be a haven for those families. Thanks to our funders, we will be able to employ nine people with experience of homelessness in the new building to create and deliver our programme. We know that people who have been there are best placed to come up with solutions.

Together we will continue to fight the crisis head on.

A woman grinning at a huge bubble
The joy of bubbles on the trail to find The Secret Museum. Image: Lucinda MacPherson.

The site — at Manor House Lodge in Finsbury Park — will be our home for at least 10 years, which gives us a real sense of security as London is so volatile — it's very difficult to find space if you are a small organisation. We can't wait to welcome our audience for a museum experience like no other.

People can expect small groups and a raw, intimate experience rather than sweeping galleries and imposing architecture. Research tells us that eight in 10 people think that homelessness is a serious problem and, in our experience, people want to help but don't always know how.

A handsome red brick villa
Manor House Lodge, which will soon be the Museum of Homeslessness. Image: Matt Turtle

As the homelessness crisis deepens, our visitors will be able to ask burning questions, discuss social issues and find out how they can take action.

Find out more about the Museum of Homelessness.