Museums for all?

Museums focusing solely on homelessness

Exhibitions featuring homeless individuals’ items

Programs specifically for homeless individuals

I have to ask, is it really such a good idea?

This all sounds good; there would be more awareness of the challenges individuals who endure homelessness face and awareness of the problem.

Background: Over the last several months, I have been interacting closely with individuals who are currently or have recently experienced homelessness at a local street newspaper. Part of this interaction entailed the challenge of building a museum program for this group of people.

Straight up: I don’t think that individuals who are currently or have recently experienced homelessness should be considered a singular audience or the focus of an exhibition.

Exception: In the event that an organization serving individuals experiencing homelessness or individuals experiencing homelessness themselves request a program, it would be acceptable to differentiate this audience.

Why?

These folks are people just like the rest of the population. While they may be “homeless”, that may not be the main way they identify themselves or want to be identified by society. Each of these people have a variety of skills sets, personal life needs, and concerns.

I would also ask people to consider what good is an exhibition featuring homelessness actually going to do. How is it going to affect change? Simply “raising awareness” is not going to change the root cause of why people are homeless and why it is such a difficult situation to overcome. Additionally, how would the homeless population benefit from such an exhibition? Would the museum be willing to donate a portion of the revenue to their local effort to fight homelessness? The other issue to be raised is that money is not the only thing needed to end homelessness. Laws, attitudes, and people have to change. In the DC area, many of the people currently experiencing homelessness is a direct result of racism towards their parents and grandparents that prevented them from obtaining housing in safe neighborhoods they could afford.

Another perspective: These are all my thoughts. I asked a gentleman named Ken who I’ve been interacting with over the last several months what he thinks:

On the Museum of Homelessness: Good if it helps the cause. Will they be housing people?

What needs to change in museums for individuals experiencing homelessness to enjoy them?

Museum culture. Museum staff must be friendlier and more welcoming to individuals that they perceive to currently experience or have recently experienced homelessness. If they don’t do this, they further alienate an audience that has just as much right to be there as any other person. (paraphrased)

Here’s what I’ve been looking at:

In the UK:  Museum of Homelessness I reached out to them recently and look forward to their response to my questions on how they will serve their community.

Colorado: Project for the Present Searching for Home It seems that this exhibition is on hold for the time being. This is raises the question about the appropriateness of using the objects in an exhibition. How much benefit will the individuals from whom the objects came experience versus the of those at History Colorado?

Incluseum: Engaging With Homeless Adults This covers the benefit of long-term relationships, art as therapy, and recommendations for program preparation and engagement. This is helpful for programs that work with organizations who have reached out to a museum for programming. Many of these steps listed in the article are already things that an educator planning for an audience would take into consideration. What makes this audience different?

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8 thoughts on “Museums for all?

  1. klvholmes

    I appreciate your perspective on the idea of homelessness being portrayed in a museum. I feel that paying someone for their sign and then displaying the sign in an exhibition does not do justice to the real issues at hand. Often homelessness is treated as a pariah subject or people/ families that are experiencing homelessness are forgotten or overlooked in society.

    This needs to change and as change agents and museum professionals we can create programs that go into the community and invite positive changes. Open mike nights where everyone is truly welcome to speak their truth in a community space or even in a park can open a communities eyes to the challenges their fellow community members are facing.

    It will not be easy and addressing the complex issues surrounding homelessness should not be taken lightly in any museum setting because it is a reflection of the local community and American society as a whole.

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    1. tenebristic Post author

      Yesterday, I reconnected with a friend from my undergrad who did work in DFW with the homeless population. I’m hoping that some of that experience can be applied here in DC. He worked on a city council board that established that constructing apartments for individuals experiencing homelessness was more cost effective than the uses of the current budget already allocated to that population. I hadn’t thought about open-mic nights. This could be a really great way to connect individuals. I recently found out that a girl I went to high school with experienced homelessness because of a drug addiction. Thankfully, she found an organization that helped her recover. Having events as a community hosted by museums could help provide a connection for individuals (both experiencing homelessness and those not) to resources and opportunities to make a difference.

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  2. Cristina

    Morgan,
    I totally agree that individuals who are currently experiencing homeless shouldn’t be considered a singular audience or the focus of a museum. Like you stated they are people and should not be defined as just being homeless. The difficult challenge we face is how do we welcome these peoples unique personal needs and concerns. I would love to hear about current museums working with community organizations to foster deeper and meaningful relationships with such people. I think the first step in welcoming this (sadly neglected) audience is having museum staff approach them with compassion and kindness!

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  3. ninasgraham

    Morgan,
    I really liked your take on the idea of homelessness used in museums as exhibits. I completely agree with the notion that people should not be exploited whether it be for profit or non-profit museums. You mentioned that people who are homeless may not want to be known for that, nor should they be targeted as a specific audience. I believe that to be the case for many individuals experiencing homelessness. I would also argue that, unless these participants are directly benefiting from these projects, they’re not the main focus. Thus questioning the museums mission overall, and like you said; to simply spread awareness is not enough.

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  4. katebreichert

    What you’ve identified in your discussion about homelessness and the museum world is something that I think I frequently struggle with in thinking about building audience-specific museum programming, particularly in situations where the museum staff and educators are not intimately involved with the “audience” that they are trying to serve, draw in, or understand: what business do I have telling YOU how you identify and building a program based on MY understanding of your needs based on that classification? Now, obviously audience-centered programming– programming that is relevant to the individual participating, that is meaningful and engaging to their learning strengths and interests, etc– is critical to successful museum education, and we are not superhumans capable of creating the perfect individualized experience for every visitor (though we may try). Grouping and classifying is necessary not only for sanity and clarity of purpose but also for funding and the like. But your concern with identifying populations as “homeless” when they would prefer to identify as their person and not their situation is, I think, not limited to the “homeless” audience, and can at best fail to serve the intended audience and at worst marginalize them further. Audience self-identification is certainly a important consideration when attempting to build the necessary bridges between the museum and the audience and avoid the perpetuation of racial, economic, religious, and other divisions that exist in the public that we seek and strive to serve.

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  5. Danielle

    The museum that I work at actually has a few homeless regulars – one in particular comes specifically for a regular program that we have (he’s clearly in love with the subject and even followed the museum after it relocated). Our staff know him and welcome him, however very unfortunately museums can’t always change the behavior or attitudes that their visitors have.

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  6. tkhorst

    Thank you so much for addressing this issue with our class! It’s something that I think about a lot, especially after living in DC and Denver. I think this is situation where we especially need to think about working with and not for our audience. People experiencing homelessness are so misunderstood in our society, and what I love about Street Sense is that it gives them a voice. Maybe an exhibit that focused on the issue of homelessness rather than “homeless people” would be less exploitative? I just think that exhibits can be so helpful in changing attitudes and the way we think about things, but you make a great point about how raising awareness is simply not enough.

    In my historic houses class, our discussant from Lincoln’s Cottage suggested how we can inspire our visitors toward action. She explained how Lincoln’s Cottage provided its visitors with post cards that each have a different action they can perform after leaving the museum to combat modern slavery. Also, since the post cards can be mailed, they spread knowledge/action to people who may not be able to visit the museum.

    I think that an exhibit that allows people experiencing homelessness to explain this issue and provides audiences with concrete actions to combat it would be extremely helpful. I am always wondering what the best way to address homelessness is, and I would really benefit from a list of actions that I could take in order to help.

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  7. museumpeople

    Morgan–thank you for this thought provoking post. You make me think–no one totally identifies with any singular audience. And some of our identities we would prefer to be associated with–perhaps homelessness isn’t one of them. I am also provoked by the concept that unless the program or exhibition helps the situation, is it worth doing? There are many ways that museums could help a community with homelessness, but ultimately can they get at the root causes? I have a friend who runs Mary House, transitional housing mostly for new immigrants. She runs an after school program as part of the services offered. Childcare is a big issue for people working at low-wage jobs or looking for work. Museums certainly could provide enrichment for programs such as the one at Mary House. Lots to think about…

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