Geffrye Museum spotlights Victorian homelessness with new exhibition

An exhibition exploring the untold stories of the homeless in Victorian London will open at the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, London.

A Penny Situp in a Salvation Army shelter in Blacfriars, London c.1900
A Penny Situp in a Salvation Army shelter in Blacfriars, London c.1900

Homes of the Homeless will reimagine the lived experiences of Londoners in poverty during the 19th and early 20th centuries, using photographs and paintings from the period, as well as recreations.

It is a collaborative project between the Geffrye and Drs Jane Hamlett, Lesley Hoskins and Rebecca Preston, who have built upon their own academic research project on residential spaces in the 19th century – At Home in the Institution? Asylum, School and Lodging House Interiors in London and South-East England, 1845-1914.

Men at dinner in St Marylebone Workhouse London c1900
Men at dinner in St Marylebone Workhouse London c1900

Many of the poor inhabited lodging houses and refuges with strangers, though the exhibition hopes to show the positivity of spirit and camaraderie among those with little to no means in London.

AFSB Associates has designed the exhibition with partners Andy Feast and Sharon Beard leading the project.

Houseless and Hungry – engraving by Luke Fields 1869

Source: Cardiff University Library

Houseless and Hungry – engraving by Luke Fields 1869

They took into consideration the little amount of physical sources available as an incentive to create a more dramatic experience for the viewer.

Feast says: “We looked for a way to fit what we had into a cohesive space. So the response was to create something theatrical.”

Men in coffin beds in a Salvation Army Shelter c.1900. The Salvation Army Heritage

Source: The Salvation Army Heritage centre

Men in coffin beds in a Salvation Army Shelter c.1900. The Salvation Army Heritage

Homes of the Homeless blows up photographs and paintings of Victorian men and women in shelters and on the street to human size to create a poignant atmosphere, balanced with recreations of the shelters that many shared with people they didn’t know. Poverty-stricken individuals slept in small “coffin boxes”, which the audience are encouraged to experience first-hand.

Setting out the exhibition, Feast worked with curator Hannah Fleming to form a narrative from the images, objects and accounts and oral histories of those who lived in temporary lodgings.

A Recess on a London Bridge by Augustus Edwin Mulready – oil on canvas 1879
A Recess on a London Bridge by Augustus Edwin Mulready – oil on canvas 1879

Fleming says, “the impetus was to tell the story from the homeless point of view, but we wanted to avoid the grim and bleak.”

Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London will run from 24 March – 12 July 2015 at The Geffrye Museum of the Home, 136 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8EA. Entrance is £5.

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