THE WORLD ON YOUR DOORSTEP
By James Willsher
Lambeth Life paid a visit to the Migration Museum, newly selected as one of the Mayor of Lambeth Ibrahim Dogus’ chosen charities, which explores the movement of people to and from Britain.
The Migration Museum opened in April 2017, after previously developing as a roving and pop-up exhibition at venues including the Southbank Centre, Hackney Museum, National Maritime Museum and National Library of Scotland.
Inspired by Ellis Island in the US, it follows Britain’s story of migration from the Romans, Anglo- Saxons, Vikings and Normans through the age of empire to the modern era of two world wars, Windrush, the European Union (EU) and today’s refugee crisis.
High profile supporters include actors Riz Ahmed, Joanna Lumley, and Naomie Harris, as well as author Sir Salman Rushdie.
As you enter, on your right is a huge black and white photograph taken half a century ago, showing Asian and white children stood beneath part of an advertising billboard. Only the words ALL WELCOME are visible above, but chillingly there is also far-right graffiti. The children forever play on.
It’s not just about history – one of the museum’s first exhibitions after opening featured fake lifejacket sold to refugees by traffickers on the dangerous Mediterranean route to Europe by boat; remnants from the now-dismantled Calais Jungle were also displayed, as well as testimonies, sketches and filmed footage.
So far there have been 170,000 visitors, with 7,000 school pupils taking part in visits and an education programme, which has also helped to inform a new GCSE history syllabus.
But how can a museum, housed temporarily in a building awaiting redevelopment, convey the enormous impact of migration over the centuries without becoming overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the history and detail involved?
Matthew Plowright, the museum’s Head of Communications, explains how its latest exhibition Room to Breathe sees past the statistics to tell the stories of people.
He said: “Everywhere has migration stories, but Lambeth, in particular, resonates on many levels, going all the way back to the Thames and through the history of settlement – there can’t be a more appropriate setting for a migration museum.
“We wanted to put current migration in context. There’s a definite perception that migration is a contemporary phenomenon, but there are lots of examples throughout history, though that’s not to say there are easy parallels.
“There are over 100 stories that we have collected from people who have arrived here, and we provided a platform for them to tell their own stories in their own words.”
Room to Breathe takes place across seven rooms, each with its own theme based on the real experiences of migrants.
The first thing you see is a wall of boxes, stamped with immigration jargon such as Leave to Remain, and Minimum Income Requirement, reflecting the bureaucratic and impersonal experience migrants have on first arriving.
Matthew says the rest of the exhibition seeks to progress beyond this, moving from legalistic and socio-economic officialdom to restore the highly personal and human heart of migrant stories. You’re encouraged to look in cupboards and open drawers to find hidden testimonies; sitting at a table or in an armchair will trigger audio and visual content – Room to Breathe is an interactive, personal experience.
A bedroom, a wardrobe, a chair; photographs, postcards. They are presented with typed memories from real migrants, telling of how items like a toy, a mirror and a hairbrush can be important as reassuring symbols of the familiar amid a rush of new and unfamiliar experiences.
The nurse who arrived in 1969 from Trinidad and Tobago, who works exhausting hours but lives for getting ready and going out
dancing with her friends; the workplace canteen which offers stodgy, mid-20th-century British fare only; the West Indian migrant who served in the RAF and latterly worked on the railways, writing hundreds of letters home to friends and family.
Stand near a display of photographs mounted on the wall and they will spring to life, as personal stories filmed: a young woman’s arriving recollections were of wondering why British homes have fewer windows than those in Brazil, and of the unending, oppressive darkness of winter.
Through a door is a bright, spacious kitchen. Recipes are pinned to noticeboards, with stories attached: the husband and wife from Galicia who opened a café in Oxford, and their son who grew up on full English breakfasts. Visitors can contribute their own recipes, but remember to sit at the table – a surprise video begins, taking you through real memories.
On shelves are utensils, ingredients and condiments imported from around the world, the contents of the migrant kitchen, each with their own little biography attached: the tea set from a grandmother back home; a pan for making byrek Albanian pastry.
Cookery classes, most recently in Ethiopian cuisine, also take place regularly in the kitchen – check the website for details on how you can take part, but book early as places tend to fill up fast.
From the kitchen on into an art studio, used by a series of migrant artists in residence who host workshops for visitors of all ages and backgrounds, as well as other migrants themselves, and you can admire their works on display; art as a form of therapy and exploration, to reflect experiences both positive and negative.
The fifth room is dedicated to the traditional high street of towns and cities across the land, where so many migrants end up working in shops or restaurants or setting up their own businesses.
A delicatessen is opened, once rare in the UK but now almost ubiquitous thanks to migration; a half-Pakistani, half-English optometrist ends up learning Spanish and Portuguese in order to better understand her new migrant customers.
Staying with the high street, you move on into a barbershop, and a beauty salon places where migrants also go to work, to meet and to talk. If you sit in the chairs in front of the mirrors, films of real discussions between hairdressers and customers begin to play; it is also hoped to open up the installation as a real barbershop.
Now a desk, displays on the walls, exercise books, little tables and chairs – a school classroom; remember to open the drawers in the tables to find hidden surprises.
Take a seat, and read the stories of migrant pupils’ early memories of school. Maths proves a universal language, transcending as-yet limited English: a student excels at this and goes on to become a physicist.
A girl arrives in the UK knowing only how to say yes and no. She works hard, becomes a teacher, and then a pioneering headteacher in a struggling east London secondary school, turning it around to success, and is ultimately awarded a CBE.
Next, you stop at an extraordinary sight: hundreds of little paper parcels hang suspended from above, all of them handwritten notes of thanks from migrants, addressed to those who helped them through those first, difficult times in the UK.
It’s a simple, but arresting installation, and Matthew says these were all written by migrant visitors to the museum, some of whom returned with those benefactors to show them their contribution to the display.
Lastly, there is a café, art gallery and shop filled with intriguing books on migration, including the bestselling Bloody Foreigners: The Story Of Immigration To Britain, by Robert Winder, who is also a trustee of the museum.
There are also t-shirts for sale, featuring a black and white print of Paddington Bear and emblazoned with the legend Immigration Is Not A Crime, which is surely a social media celebrity fashion thing waiting to happen.
Events such as film screenings, book launches, knitting sessions and lectures take place every few days, so make sure to have a look at the museum’s website for the latest information.
As Britain prepares to leave the EU, there has never been a more appropriate time to pay a visit to this highly engaging and meticulously well-researched exhibition.
You could spend all day here, and still not read, watch and hear everyone’s stories, which perhaps reflects the very nature of migration itself: endlessly diverse, fascinating, challenging.
The Migration Museum is free to enter, and open from Thursday to Sunday until July – for more information, visit migrationmuseum.org