The Secret Museum, Museum of Homelessness, Nov 2021

For the last 11 days the Museum of Homelessness have been running the ‘Secret Museum‘; part treasure hunt, part immersive experience, part theatre, part museum experience.

Arriving outside the Imax Cinema Costa Coffee in Waterloo, I look out, eagle-eyed, for fellow Secret Museum hunters wearing rainbow coloured wrist bands, assembled we wait for the hunt to begin.

Beneath the Bullring roundabout, 1989. Photograph: Neil Libbert/The ObserverObserver picture archive: Cardboard city, 23 April 1989

We hear music and two cyclists ride by and beckon us to follow, they are playing the Levellers – Cardboard Box City, a reference to a time when the Bullring roundabout by Waterloo Station wasn’t a cinema but a home for the homeless. First occupied in 1978, by the mid-1980s up to 200 people were sleeping there in cardboard boxes. They were officially evicted in February 1998.

We follow the trail of the ‘Pink Flamingo’, the hunt for the Secret Museum has begun.

Founders of the Museum of Homelessness, Jess and Matt, are our next stop. We stand in the churchyard of St. John’s Church where many homeless ended up after being evicted. We are told a history of this area, of these streets we walk. This is a living history, on site, so often hidden and ignored, here it is out in the open.

We follow the trail on and under the railway arches we share a cup of tea – Lapsang Souchong no less, an object donated to the Secret Museum collection, we have yet to understand its full significance but that moment is to come. It is a moment of camaraderie in a shared experience of hands clasped tight round a cup of hot fragrant tea on a cold and drab November afternoon.

We continue on our hunt, round the streets of London till finally we come to the Secret Museum.

In stark, dark tunnels we see 12 objects, lit on plinths, objects that have been donated by the Museum of Homelessness community.

The objects have no labels, they seem commonplace, unremarkable, easily ignored. But these objects come with stories; individual, personal, sometimes painful. Each object tells one person’s story, a collective experience of homelessness, all under the narrative arc of the Covid pandemic. What it meant for those living on the streets, the government response, the charity response and the stark reality of what words and promises actually meant to those living on the periphery.

This is a museum with objects and object stories at the very heart of it, rather than a museum which happens to have objects inside it. The objects and their stories are tethered together, they are inseparable, the connection is what gives them their power.

We are told those stories in a spoken word performance, the words are projected onto the black walls, we stand in groups, hushed. They are stories that are intensely personal, they are not a beginning, middle and an end. They are touch points in a life, they are meanings and moments of pain and joy, of laughter and struggle, friendship, love, sadness and defiance.

Once spoken it is like the words hang above the objects, a thick cloud of emotion. I was privileged to see two of those who had donated objects listen to the storytellers tell their legends. I use legend because it comes from the heart of folklore, a spoken oral tradition, it is woven into the fabric of a person. It is a skill to breathe life into the words. One donor sat in a quiet corner and watched from the back, one stood at the front of the crowd, her eyes never leaving the storyteller as the tears fell.

These stories were not curated to remove meaning, or sanitised to the point of acceptance, there was the sanctity of the confessional, untouched, unfiltered.

I could, hear, see and feel the impact of those words. To take one small moment out of my conventional life to try and understand a world I walk past and ignore.

I have never had such an intensely personal experience in a museum before, never had a moment that has made me question my understanding, my reactions, why I have the life that I do.

The Secret Museum is 11 days of wonder as the Museum of Homelessness searches for its own permanent base, this moment has come and gone. As I write these words it is already packed up and ‘moved on’.

The Secret Museum was ephemeral, shifting, like a life on the streets it is trying to portray. There are moments of connection, companionship and shared experience. Touch points of storytelling and connection to a moment, a place, a street, a pavement.

A heartfelt thank you to the Museum of Homelessness as hosts, to the donors of 12 seemingly unremarkable objects that mean so much. To the storytellers who made it about so much more than labels and words.

Once you have searched the streets for the pink flamingo you can never see London’s streets in the same way again.


You can find out more about the Secret Museum here –

You can find out more about the Museum of Homelessness here –

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