A tower of cardboard boxes with words such as “repatriation” and “minimum income requirement” greet you as you walk into the entrance of the Migration Museum, on the south bank of the Thames in central London. The image evoked — a barrage of bureaucracy and mind-bogglingly complex entry requirements — is one that anyone who has moved to a new country could probably relate to.
Walk through an adjacent door, however, and you enter a cosy room, with a small bed, and packed with objects and drawers to sift through. You are immediately drawn in. That is the idea of Room to Breathe , the latest exhibition by the museum, which has been celebrating Britain’s immigration story at various locations across the country for the past five years.
Room to Breathe is an acutely personal and immersive exhibition, drawing on the stories and objects donated to it by men and women who came to Britain over the years and made it their home. Some have been in Britain for decades while others are recent movers. Their accounts, hidden in cupboards, or on the back of food packets in a mock-up kitchen, tell stories that are diverse, evocative, sometimes poignant, painful and funny. There is the son of an immigrant café owner, recollecting his parents’ many years running the place and the 75,000 eggs he believes his father cooked over that period, or the memories of Duncan, who moved to London from Kolkata in the 1950s, and grew up in the city’s east End, learning Russian “walking around Hackney Downs, plonking an instrument, with the whole class chanting ‘ som, soi, som ”. There is Karamat, who moved from Kashmir in the 1970s, and remembers the prejudice and harassment he faced from both teachers and classmates, or the Punjabi who moved to the UK with barely two words of spoken English, who went on to become one of the country’s female headteachers.
“The instinct at an exhibition is not to touch anything, but we want to turn that on its head and encourage people to pick up books, find hidden objects and stories,” says Matthew Plowright, a former journalist who joined the museum project after being struck by the lack of any space in the UK that focussed on the movement of people in and out of the country.
While many museums in Britain touch on immigration — so key to its past and future — until now there was not an institution dedicated to this theme in the way spaces such as New York’s Tenement Museum are, he says. “This plays into the ways in which immigration is talked about, in terms of policy and the narrow focus, largely in terms of numbers,” he says. “What is often left out is the long story of migration in and out of the UK, and the human story.”
The museum’s existence has coincided with a turbulent time in Britain’s (and Europe’s) relationship with migration. Its earlier projects fed into the work of those countering the toxic narrative put out by some at the height of the refugee crisis where hundreds of thousands of people sought refuge in Europe amid conflict. The latest exhibition comes amid growing concerns about the treatment of migrants in Britain. This has manifested itself in a rise in hate crimes towards those perceived to be of foreign background, as well as in government immigration policy. The British government was rocked earlier this year by the ‘Windrush’ scandal, as it emerged that it had been wrongly treating (largely black) immigrants from the Caribbean Commonwealth, long residents in the UK.
Spaces for positive thought
Aside from the intimidating tower at the entrance, and individual chronicles of racist experiences, the exhibition’s focus is less on these developments as it is on humanising the movement of people and their way of life to the streets, the sights, smells and sounds of Britain. It also seeks to provide a space for those with positive recollections: there is the “colour of kindness” room where visitors are encouraged to hang up little handmade cardboard boxes with the name of someone who helped them — even in the tiniest way — when they first went somewhere new, encouraging visitors to recollect how overwhelming being in a new environment can be.
Will it help change the situation on the ground? Plowright says they are very aware that by and large those who choose to visit will be people already in tune with their world view, but he highlights the considerable work being done with schools and young people. Past projects have always involved school groups and there will be schools visiting pretty much every day this month, alongside community groups. “We’ve definitely had some challenging conversations and really searching questions,” he says. “But when you humanise the story, people feel far more sympathetic. This is someone’s life. If we can help humanise and inject a personal element to the immigration story, we hope it will help make the conversation less corrosive.”
Room to Breathe is on at the Migration Museum, London, till the summer of 2019. Workshops, including with migrant artists in residence, will also take place throughout. Details: migrationmuseum.org