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IUPUI student exhibit examines material culture of homelessness

A current exhibit at the Indianapolis Central Library explores the cultural heritage of a group that's often overlooked when people think about culture: the city's homeless population.

Called "What Does Homelessness Look Like?" the exhibit was produced by students in an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis class taught by museum studies professors Larry Zimmerman and Elizabeth Kryder-Reid. It will be at the library, at 40 E. St. Clair St., until Dec. 20.

The exhibit, which focuses largely on a campsite created by homeless people at the Davidson Street Bridge near downtown Indianapolis, uses photographs, artifacts and archaeological data to show how homeless people use material objects to provide for themselves and to give meaning to life.

"In particular, it demonstrates the gap between some services to the homeless and the realities of 'living rough' and also how, like anyone, homeless people make meaning and memories through their possessions and their personal spaces," Kryder-Reid said.

Homeless Exhibit

IUPUI master's students Dolly Hayde, left, and Christina Hunt-Schubnell install an exhibit at the Indianapolis Central Library on the archaeology of homelessness.

Print-Quality Photo

The class, called Issues in Cultural Heritage, includes graduate students and upper-level undergraduates and is part of the museum studies program in the IUPUI School of Liberal Arts. The students also produced a second exhibit, which emphasizes the archaeology, installed on the fourth floor of IUPUI Cavanaugh Hall, and an e-book showcasing their work.

They also organized and led a public forum, titled "The Archaeology of Homelessness," last week at the library. Speakers gave presentations to an audience that included students, faculty, representatives of social-service agencies, several homeless people and curious citizens.

Kryder-Reid said producing the exhibits and forum enabled students to gain a greater understanding of homelessness as they worked to not only learn about the material conditions of homelessness but to express the information to a general audience with words, pictures and objects.

"The project gave them an opportunity to take large questions and apply them to a local setting," she said. "We challenged them with the question of, do the homeless have heritage? They had to work through what heritage is, how it's defined -- heritage not so much as a noun as a verb."

Zimmerman began studying the archaeology of homelessness in Indianapolis several years ago. Working with Jessica Welch, an IUPUI student who had been homeless, he surveyed, mapped and classified homeless encampments in the city. Courtney Singleton, a former IUPUI student now in graduate school at the University of Maryland, joined the project and intensified the focus on the Davidson Street site.

Welch, Singleton and Zimmerman spoke at last week's forum, along with Rachael Kiddey, an archaeologist from the University of York in the U.K.

Zimmerman said archaeology is a useful lens for understanding homelessness. It provides a deeper understanding of people's lives through the things they possess and use, including items that help meet basic needs of warmth, shelter and food, as well as objects with personal value such as photographs, personal letters or military records.

Acknowledging that homeless people have a cultural heritage also invests them with humanity and counters the dominant social narrative that homelessness is a uniform phenomenon. "Homeless people are often characterized as one sort of person, when it's really a lot of stories," he said.

Finally, having a better understanding of the conditions of homeless life will help service providers and others engage with homeless people more effectively. For example, goods that are donated, with the best of intentions, to homeless people often go unused. Foods that need to be cooked aren't much good for people who don't have a stove. And soap and shampoo aren't useful if you have nowhere to bathe.

"I think a lot of people are very generous and willing to support homeless people," Zimmerman said, "but they take their own ideas with them about what they think homeless people might need."