The Geffrye Museum shines a light on Victorian homelessness with a new exhibition

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

A Penny Situp at a Salvation Army shelter in Blacfriars, London circa 1900

Homes of the Homeless will reimagine Londoners’ experiences of poverty in the 19and and early 20and centuries, using period photographs and paintings, as well as reconstructions.

This is a collaborative project between the Geffrye and Drs Jane Hamlett, Lesley Hoskins and Rebecca Preston, who built on their own academic research project on residential spaces at 19and century – At home in the institution? Asylum, school and lodging house interiors in London and South East England, 1845-1914.

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

Many of the poor housed and sheltered foreigners, although the exhibition hopes to show the positivity of spirit and camaraderie among those of little or no means in London.

AFSB Associates designed the exhibit with partners Andy Feast and Sharon Beard spearheading the project.

Homeless and starving - engraving by Luke Fields 1869

Source: Cardiff University Library

Homeless and starving – engraving by Luke Fields 1869

They considered the few physical sources available as an incentive to create a more dramatic experience for the viewer.

Feast says, “We looked for a way to integrate what we had into a cohesive space. So the answer was to create something theatrical.

Men in coffin beds at a Salvation Army shelter circa 1900. The legacy of the Salvation Army

Source: Salvation Army Heritage Center

Men in coffin beds at a Salvation Army shelter circa 1900. The legacy of the Salvation Army

Homes of the Homeless blasts photographs and paintings of Victorian men and women in shelters and on the human-sized street to create a poignant atmosphere, balanced by recreations of the shelters many shared with people they don’t didn’t know. The poverty-stricken people slept in small “coffin boxes”, which the public is invited to experience first-hand.

In preparing for the exhibition, Feast worked with curator Hannah Fleming to form a narrative from images, objects, stories and oral histories of those who lived in temporary housing.

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

Fleming says, “the impetus was to tell the story from the perspective of the homeless, but we wanted to avoid the dark and dark.”

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

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