Museum TrendsWatch 2019: Homelessness and Housing Insecurity

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

July 24, 2019

When I attended the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual conference held in New Orleans, I sat in on the TrendsWatch 2019 session where Founding Director at the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), Elizabeth Merritt reviewed the CFM’s TrendsWatch 2019 report, which includes an explanation and review of societal and museum impact for each trend. Read on for my synopsis and observations on the fifth trend to watch (Homelessness and Housing Insecurity) as part of your museum strategy; I wrote about the others in additional posts.

The State of Homelessness & Housing Insecurity

As of 2018, 20% of the world’s population (1.6 billion) lack secure housing and almost 2% (more than 150 million) are homeless. This TrendWatch section begins with outlining why Homelessness and Housing Insecurity has yet to be adequately addressed by society-at-large. Merritt reviews the statistics of this issue over the past decade and highlights past policy efforts that have helped or hindered an effective and humane solution. Additionally, Homelessness and housing insecurity usually involve other compounding factors such as health, education, employment, and social and economic mobility. As Merritt points out: the solution needs to involve voters, policy makers, funders, and corporation.

What does this trend have to do with Museums?

Museums are widely acknowledged as connectors of culture. In some circles there exists a belief that museums are a luxury only afforded to those in a high socio-economic class even though art, history, and culture belongs to all of us. Access to museums is critical so that people may better understand their past, reflect on the present, and plan for the future. For many supporters of the humanities, access to museums is believed to be a basic human right. This is backed up by articles 25 and 27 of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights as cited by the TrendsWatch report. The Declaration gives “equal weight to the right of housing and ‘the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’”

“Society often treats food, safety, and shelter as needs that must be met before people can satisfy “higher” needs, including self-actualization through arts, history, and culture.” Merritt argues that museums shouldn’t wait to serve people until they’ve secured basic life resources such as housing. Indeed, access to museum collections and programs is a human right that can be provided for—alongside work to help people solve for their other important needs.

This trend coverage asks 2 critical questions of cultural nonprofits (such as museums):

  1. How can cultural nonprofits play a bigger role in finding a solution?
  2. How can cultural nonprofits ensure that people experiencing housing insecurity can exercise their right to take part in cultural life?

Follow Solution-Oriented Peers

Merritt recommends that museums look to their “library cousins” and review how libraries (public and private) have worked to become welcoming and inclusive of people experiencing homelessness. In addition to inclusivity, Merritt also states that museums “control immensely powerful intangible assets: reputation, reach, and networks of influence.” And she challenges museums to creatively evaluate how their assets can be employed to help support those experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.

Museum To-Do List

TrendsWatch recommends the following potential to-do items for museums:

  • Educate museum personnel and visitors about the state of homelessness and housing insecurity.
  • Better serve those experiencing homelessness by prioritizing: social inclusion, build social networks, and foster self-worth.
  • Train staff to welcome all visitors and handle any challenges that arise.
  • Hire staff who have experienced homelessness themselves.
  • Create a Community Benefits Agreement to demonstrate community benefits the museum contributes.
  • Give those who have experienced (or are experiencing) homelessness or housing insecurity a voice to tell their own stories.
  • Document and share best practices.

And I would add:

  • Facilitate connections to nonprofit and municipal resources that can assist those experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
  • Evaluate your city’s current response to homelessness and housing insecurity and support or advocate for actions that support humane solutions.
  • Partner with local businesses to facilitate food and clothing donations.
  • Consider becoming a warming center or related emergency response center.
  • Offer free community days or times.
Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Read more of Rachael’s posts on museum strategies. Additionally, learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and digitization, which can be used to support a wide variety of museum strategies.

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