Q&A with Matt Turtle

Rob Picheta, 17.01.2018
The Museum of Homelessness is part of the 2018 Tate Exchange Programme
Matt Turtle is a co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness (MoH), a charitable project which displays artworks and events relating to the experience of homelessness. The charity is part of the 2018 Tate Exchange Programme.

The MoH has staged installations across the country and is seeking a permanent base. It launched its State of the Nation programme at the Tate Modern last year, and will be launching it at Tate Liverpool this month.

How is the Museum of Homelessness involved with the Tate Exchange Programme?

In March 2014, I co-founded the Museum of Homelessness with my wife, Jess Turtle. Since then we’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing people, developing it from an idea into a reality against a backdrop of welfare changes and escalating homelessness in the UK. From the early stages, we’ve been really warmly embraced and supported by so many other museums around the country. MoH is run by a core group of people, many of whom have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness. This ensures that direct experience informs everything MoH does. It was the core group who decided that we should use the opportunity of Tate Exchange to draw attention to the significant and all too often fatal challenges that those at the sharp end of society are currently facing, hence State of the Nation was born.

Since launching State of the Nation at Tate Modern, it’s gone to hostels and day centres as well and we’ll be rounding it off at Tate Liverpool from 22-28 January. Expect a week of art, events and performances. We are really pleased to be continuing our work with artist David Tovey and will once again be presenting A Soldier’s Story, an emotive installation which shares the experiences of servicemen and women who have become homeless. The soldiers are a powerful reminder that the sacrifices made by our armed forces too often extend beyond their time in uniform.

We’ll also be presenting a new landmark artwork, Frequently Asked Questions by Anthony Luvera and Gerald McLaverty, which shows how 61 local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales respond to basic questions informed by McLaverty’s experience of homelessness. The questions illustrate rough sleepers’ struggle to meet their most basic needs.
In what ways does the MoH bring together people who have been homeless and those who haven’t, and what outcome do you see?

It happens in lots of ways; people get involved and word spreads via street networks, voluntary organisations and activist networks, as well as the more traditional public engagement routes which museums usually draw upon for their audiences.

What we love is the ability that MoH has to create a space where all kinds of people want to come together and have conversations that they wouldn’t in everyday life. We are always being pleasantly surprised when people get in touch and get involved from places we wouldn’t expect. For example, next week we have a group of ten people experiencing homelessness coming from Anglesey to our event in Liverpool. It’s an honour and we’re very excited to welcome the group. Our events often see activists alongside policy makers and people with direct experience of homelessness. We always make room for discussion whenever MoH pops up somewhere. This is really important because there isn’t another space where all those points of view can come together.

Partly, people come because our objects represent the direct experiences of homelessness and are given to us by people who have been there. In the last year we collected about 20, ranging from a paper swan made in a detention centre through to a piece of cob used in a transition town. They are objects that really tell a powerful story and draw people in, no matter what their background is.

In terms of outcomes, we have set ourselves clear social goals: these are to tackle the prejudice and stigma associated with homelessness, unpick and share its complexity and also offer individuals opportunities for connection and the chance to build something special.

How can art and creativity bring about social change?

There are so many ways that it can happen. Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home redefined how homelessness was thought about in the 1960s and led to the founding of Shelter. It’s difficult to think about one single piece of visual art that has had that scale of influence but we should never underestimate it; it can be a catalyst for deeper understandings and unexpected wider change. We are inspired by the power of theatre in our own work. Cardboard Citizens’ 2017 theatre adaptation of the Cathy story resulted in the ‘Cathy Laws’ that were presented to policy makers at the Labour Party conference and House of Lords. They were instrumental in the construction of the Homelessness Reduction Bill of 2017.

I’m constantly inspired by artists we work with too. David Tovey, who is showcasing his Soldier’s Story installation at our upcoming State of the Nation event at Tate Liverpool, not only makes his own work but also set up the One Festival of Homeless Arts. He did this by himself, with no funding at all. He was offered a space and a lot of art by people who’ve experienced homelessness and has now directed the festival every October for two years. That platform has helped so many people and it’s amazing to see it going from strength to strength. David often says that art saved his life and he now wants to offer that to others.

So change can happen individually or socially. Ultimately change often happens when people who don’t usually speak come together around a common cause. Art can be a great tool for making that happen.

When do you expect to have a permanent space, and what form will the Museum of Homelessness take?

We spent a lot of time in late 2017 thinking about what we’ll do next and now have a new plan for the next three years, which involves securing a base. We need that, because we currently just have two desks in a co-working space. People are dropping in to our offices a lot more now and we don’t have room for all the creative activity that is flourishing - I’ve got plinths under my desk for example! And we sometimes have people taking a rest from the streets and nodding off on the sofas in our shared office.
Whilst a space to offer hospitality is increasingly important, we are a national organisation and we operate in all kinds of spaces – so I don’t think we’ll ever have a traditional museum space and there will always be a kind of mobile element to what we do. In fact, we don’t really create exhibitions because the way we share objects and stories is through verbatim theatre, object handling and conversation. The materials are almost a prop for a deep social connection that happens around them – that’s where the magic happens.

Ultimately we want to have a residential element to our museum and it is written into our constitution that we can provide accommodation. That is probably a long way off but I’d expect to see us talking about being in a bigger space from next year and that will be a very exciting thing. In the meantime, we’ll be launching two major projects in for 2018 in Manchester and London in February – watch this space!