As the country braces for its hottest-ever day, we need to do everything we can to provide sanctuary for those at risk. Jess Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, writes for the Museum Association. 

We think that museums could play a vital role in mitigating the worst effects of the heat for people who are street homeless or stuck in inadequate temporary accommodation. In the UK, the dual impacts of slow onset climate change and infrastructure changes due to Covid are causing a deadly situation, and as we write this, the country is braced for the highest temperatures ever recorded. The people most affected are those with least access to resources and we need to do everything we can to help.

Currently, we have a situation with a dire gap in homelessness provision, which is leading to a documented increase in deaths of people experiencing homelessness in the summer months. This is demonstrated with investigation findings from Museum of Homelessness’ Dying Homeless Project, which tracks and remembers everyone who dies while homeless in the UK. We have found that more people die in the summer months than in winter, indicating the severe risk our community faces in the next few days.

It is clear that people who are living at the sharp end of poverty, both in the UK and globally, are at most immediate risk from the impacts of climate change, and we need policies and practice to catch up as a matter of extreme urgency. Whilst this happens, museums can help fill the gap.

Museums often have thick walls and environmental controls which keep a steady temperature. Combined with access to toilets and water this could be a life-saving scenario for people who are susceptible to extreme heat, including people affected by homelessness.

We can draw inspiration from the way other countries are responding. France for example, after the disastrous impact of the 2003 Canicule, has a much more strategic response to extreme heat. In Bordeaux, the Musee des Beaux-Arts is a key site within the coordinated cooling spaces response. With unpredictable and extreme heatwaves set to stay, museums can learn from these examples.

However, it is not as simple as just putting air-conditioned sites on an app as the Mayor of London’s office did last week. The fact is, our community does not always feel comfortable and welcomed in museums. Work that we carried out in partnership with Arts and Homelessness International, Tate and Manchester Museum in 2018 and 2019 demonstrated that there are a lot of barriers to using museum spaces. These can be psychological, emotional or literal barriers.

We would love to see more museums actively encouraging people experiencing homelessness to find shelter within their walls, and in the near future we need to see policy/funding changes made to free up museums to do more of this vital work.

In the meantime, we are sharing here some practical tips that front-of-house teams can implement immediately to make their museums more welcoming in the heat. These are based on the Cultural Spaces Toolkit we worked on with Arts and Homelessness International.

We hope that museums who are interested in social justice work and tackling climate change can see this heatwave as an opportunity to trial some really excellent practice, providing a sanctuary for our fellow citizens who are most affected by climate change.

Jess Turtle is the co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness

Read more about ERSA’s work on homelessness via our Secure Homes and Work Forum