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Monday, 18 May 2015

Homes for the Homeless: the experience of Victorian poverty

We have to be honest, we usually find ourselves at the Geffrye Museum only around Christmas time. And for this, we are ashamed. For on a recent visit on a sunny spring day, not only did we realise that the building and its gardens are glorious in the sunshine, but it's exhibitions and displays are fascinating all year round. On this particular trip we were there to see 'Homes for the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London' exhibition because, well, you know how we feel about the Victorians. (We love them in case that wasn't clear). What we found was a thoughtful, beautiful designed, multi-faceted exhibition that brought home the realities of life in the nineteenth century city.

The Pinch of Poverty - Thomas Benjamin Kennington 1891
Why is it that we are so fascinated by the Victorians? I think there's something fascinating about being able to look back at history through the medium of photography- which seems so immediate and 'real'. I also think we recognise a lot of ourselves in them - their socialising, family life, businesses, travel, aspirations : the Victorians are really the birth of the modern age we are still living in. But for all of the exciting technical innovations and fabulous clothes, Victorian London was a place of poverty, illness, and a pre-welfare state which left most of the work of looking after the vulnerable to charity organisations.

Meal-time at Holborn workhouse, 1885
We get pretty used to seeing images of Victorian families in slum conditions, dirty children playing in the street, or homeless people sleeping on benches. But we forget that for the homeless of nineteenth century London, they had to figure out everyday how to find a place to sleep and something to eat. How they achieved that shows the maze that was the Poor Law system (hospitals, workhouses), charity, and sometimes just sheer determination.

Corridor at a casual ward, early 20th c.
The Geffrye exhibition really aims to try and humanize all those black-and-white pictures of Victorian poverty that most of us have become desensitised to. Sure it's history, but those are really people's lives. Through recreated voice-recordings of contemporary testimonies, we hear about the experience of getting into a casual ward, living in a crowded common lodging house, or the best places to sleep rough. You can try the harrowing task of picking apart rope or sleeping in a coffin-like box bed. The displays show the savvy needed to navigate what relief was available, the conditions people endured, but also how people made the best of a bad situation.

Sleek, graphics-dense exhibition design
The messages of the exhibition are really hit home by a complimentary exhibition in the corridor in which vulnerable teens and children from the New Horizons Centre in Kings Cross. The participants reflect on their own experiences of homelessness, and see a surprising number of similarities with the situation as it was experienced over 100 years ago. With the new government possibly preparing to slash disability benefits, the Geffrye's exhibition takes on a new meaning as both a well-crated temporary display, and a meaningful warning for the future. 

 Homes for the Homeless is on at the Geffrye Museum until the 12th of July 

1 comment:

  1. I do enjoy your blog. Living in the Midlands I often miss out on many of the exhibitions and collections at London's smaller museums. I've always wanted to check out The Geffrye Museum and you've just given me the kick I need to finally get round to it.

    As another big fan of the Victorians (who isn't?), I enjoyed the recent BBC series that sent 6 celebs into '24 Hours in the Past' to experience different jobs and living conditions of the Victorian working class. I thought it brought history to life in a really exciting way for a broad audience - as opposed the usual 'middle-aged, middle-class, expert tells history in a removed academic format'. I have a particular issue with some of those history/culture programmes because I think their high brow approach excludes so many. But I'd be interested to know what you thought of the format - Did you watch it? What did you think?