Julie Howell: Past Present Future

Blue Sky Idea

Proposal Info

Artist Name

  • Julie Howell

Artist Website


  • Ripon Workhouse Museum

Interest in Ripon Workhouse Museum

Ripon Museums present a compelling story of social class, human liberty, justice, law and order during both the 19th and 20th centuries. As part of the Ripon Museums experience, the Workhouse shows how the impoverished were accommodated and treated, and how we regarded and organised our poor and destitute communities. The Workhouse was the end of the line for many and, as explained in the brief, many would only leave this ‘hopeless’ situation in a ‘regulation coffin’.

I am interested in exploring how the histories that are presented in the Workhouse resonate with and speak to the present day, and how they might potentially inform the future. The Museum records and census of 1881 suggest how varied and complex the reasons were for someone ending up in the Workhouse, although it seems that many shared the experience of financial poverty. Across the centuries, there are parallels in the ways that poverty is powerfully intertwined with unemployment/low paid jobs, poor health, limited education and lack of opportunity. In the past and in the present, there are undeniable intersections between poverty and the discrimination that people experience on the basis of class, race, age, disability, gender and sexuality.

Although much has changed since the 1880s, the enduring presence and pernicious effects of poverty remain today in 21st century Britain.  Despite the enduring presence of poverty, the subject today remains taboo and poorly understood.  Many view widespread poverty as something in the past, inconsistent with their understanding of the UK today.  Many are uncomfortable acknowledging and discussing contemporary poverty and reluctant to recognise its prevalence.

In 2020, as we begin to emerge from the first phase of the pandemic and as we start to assess its financial impact, we can only expect poverty levels in the UK to increase as public spending is cut further and unemployment rises. As 21st century Britain grapples with how it addresses these challenges I am interesting in looking back as well as forward, recognising that our responses to poverty in the past may not be as different, as we would like to think they are, from the ways in which we treat the most vulnerable today.

I am also interested in the potential for heritage sites and museums to not simply tell stories from the past but to bring these to bear on the ways in which we think about the present and future.  This turn towards socially purposeful or activist practice (Janes and Sandell 2019) invites those of us working in and with heritage sites to take up the challenge of connecting histories and historic sites to the contemporary world.  In this way, I am interested in exploring how the histories of the Ripon Workhouse can be activated, empowering the visitor with new information and inviting them to take action.  Inspired, in part, by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s aim to ‘inspire action and change that will create a prosperous UK without poverty’, my response will support visitors to Ripon Workhouse to better understand links between past and present and to see how all of us can take steps to subvert the conditions and routes that lead to poverty today.


I propose to create a ‘walking meditation’ through the Ripon streetscape, along the route that links the three historic sites that comprise Ripon Museums, to invite visitors to reflect on the causes and consequences of poverty in the past and present. Entitled PAST PRESENT FUTURE, this intervention in the town, designed to both disrupt the ‘traditional’ heritage experience and add a new layer of meaning, will seek to engage visitors with new ideas, open up new perspectives, prompt conversations that, in turn, will foster understanding, empathy and potentially action.  A growing body of international research points towards an increasing appetite amongst museum and heritage visitors for experiences that foster a deeper emotional response and a greater openness to thinking about potentially uncomfortable or challenging issues.

The Ripon Museums – and the stories they present – constitute poverty in the past.  The pathway between the three sites forms a walking/reading meditation, revealing the presence of poverty in the present, through over-size text inscribed onto the streetscape. A new installation encountered as visitors exit the Workhouse considers how we might all seek to tackle poverty in the future.

The path itself is a visually powerful contemporary intervention that engages visitors’ curiosity on the streets of Ripon. The linear route between the three Museums could be said to map out and make visible the route into and through poverty, as many of the 19th and 20th century poor would engage with all three institutions (courthouse, prison, workhouse) at some point in their lives, forming an invisible path. The poor would often fall victim to punishing laws of the day, passing through the Courthouse, judges would sentence offenders to be detained by the police or in prison, or to be sent to the Workhouse.

Visitors can join the path at any point; the scale of the intervention means that it is unavoidable, thought provoking, perhaps uncomfortable at times.  The route has been carefully selected so that, as visitors leave each of the historic sites that comprise Ripon Museums, they are invited to think about poverty in the present, not simply something that can be confined to the past.

The path would be 0.7 miles in length and made up of large scale (2 -4m) lettering consisting of statements from people living in poverty today, interspersed with statistics about poverty in 21st century UK.

The scale of the text inscribed onto the streets will require visitors to move differently through the town – potentially changing their intended route to piece together the stories and statistics that are presented.  The text, drawn from recent research into poverty that is freely available in the public domain, is carefully selected to foster an emotional connection in the visitor; real words from real lives and often startling statistics around a phenomenon that is largely overlooked.

Statements from real lifeStatistics

(Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.)

The act of reading and walking aims to encourage new perspectives to engage with poverty, to walk over and physically connect with the unavoidable facts laid out before you. As stated, the route between the museums, ending up at the Workhouse, would be approximately 0.7 miles long and made from 2-4 metre high lettering applied directly to the ground/roads/pathways, in a road paint, as is currently an accepted part of the urban landscape. The bold, contemporary font – suggestive of social activist campaigning – references the need to raise public awareness and prompt collective action. The lettering would be made from two colours; white for statements revealing the experience of people living in poverty today in their own words and light grey for the statistics relating to poverty in the UK today.

White and grey are familiar colours found on roads, used to instruct road users and mark out spatial behaviour. The words themselves will be strange and unfamiliar, a new signaling, demanding that visitors look again as they try to make sense of this startling presence. As the visitors follow the path, accumulating new insights as they move through the town, the extent of contemporary poverty and glimpses of its consequences are revealed, challenging the ways in which poverty is so often overlooked.

Finally, the possibility of the creation of a different story to change the future of poverty in the UK would be located within the Workhouse. I propose that an installation, developed collaboratively with local and national groups supporting people living in poverty today, would invite visitors to take action to tackle poverty.  Inspired by similar interventions appearing in a growing number of museums and heritage sites internationally, the installation would provide visitors with information related to poverty today, offer concrete ways for them to tackle poverty and support the most vulnerable (ranging, for example, from small scale acts of individual kindness to larger commitments such as volunteering with a local service provider).

“I am a socially engaged artist and experience designer, my practice is highly collaborative.  Depending on the nature of the project, I will often draw on and bring together expertise, knowledge, insights and perspectives from diverse groups and individuals. My work grows from histories and stories embedded physically within each site, often with a site-specific spatial installation as a final response. I choose to work with histories and themes that can be challenging or contested, exploring ways to make connections with contemporary audiences that move and engage at a very human level. I enjoy finding ways to connect seemingly distant histories to the contemporary social and political world, to open up new ways of thinking, seeing and feeling amongst visitors.

In recent years I have become increasingly interested in socially purposeful approaches that seek not only to prompt reflection on the past but to foster in visitors greater empathy and understanding that might potentially lead to a desire to take action.”

-Julie Howell