London’s Migration Museum holds up a mirror to the U.K.

Finding home: The Patriot, from the Migration Museum’s ‘100 Images of Migration’ exhibition in London.

Finding home: The Patriot, from the Migration Museum’s ‘100 Images of Migration’ exhibition in London.

A new museum is set to open in London this week, which will over time tell the stories of the nation’s migrants, including its Indian diaspora, as part of efforts to provide context and calm to an issue that has become increasingly heated and politicised.

The Migration Museum will run at a venue in south London until at least early next year (with hopes of a more permanent venue after that).

“It’s a great story of people coming to and going from Britain over the centuries …it’s the topic that is on everyone’s lips and has been so for the last five or ten years but in recent times the public conversation isn’t very helpful and is often presented in a polarised way with extremely inflammatory language,” says Sophie Henderson, a former immigration barrister and judge of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, who heads the Migration Museum Project.

“What we can do by looking at migration in a cultural institution is take that story away from the heat of politics and give it a more considered, contextualised approach…where you can spend time and have a more enjoyable and informed look at the issue,” she said.

The Migration Museum comes at a time when the issues of migration and race have become particularly emotionally charged, and prominent in political debate; the recent vicious attack on an asylum seeker has heightened concerns about intolerance and hate crimes.

The Museum will begin with two exhibitions: the first, a multi-media presentation on the vast refugee and migrant camp at Calais, whose tough conditions came to symbolise globally the depth of Europe’s migration crisis.

Worth a 1000 words

A second exhibition, based on a past competition run with the Guardian newspaper, will provide a snapshot of the lives of migrants over the years, drawn from recent images, family photographs and other collections. Several images chronicle the lives of the Indian community in Leicester — from a Muslim wedding to Vaisakhi celebrations and one of a woman in a sari proudly standing under the English flag of St. George. There’s an image of members of the Indian community in Southall protesting the death of an anti-racism activist in 1979 and an advertisement by the Leicester City Council in a Ugandan newspaper in 1972, urging Asians in the country not to come to Leicester.

Among the exhibits is a clipping of an old advertisement for a flat that warns “no coloured” people would be accepted, providing a reminder of the challenges faced by many migrants when they first arrived. “Some of our images are celebratory, some show conflict and some show hostility…migration is something so different to different people and such a complex part of British history. But it is a constant part of British history,” says Aditi Anand, the museum’s curator.

Engaging schools

Among the work that has been done— and will continue to be done — by the museum is with schools. “Migration is very much on children’s consciousness, and teachers sometimes find it difficult to deal with an issue that is seen as contentious,” says Ms. Henderson. The museum has run pilot workshops with children around its Calais exhibition, and included the chance for the children to meet a young person who had arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied refugee. “Its so important to us that they want to take the learning away and carry on the conversations.”

“I think our national myth has tended to be less about incomers and more about people going out of the country. It’s been more about Empire and seeing off foreigners. The people who’ve chosen to come to our country have not been so much part of our story. But of course it’s the same story, and hugely important,” says Ms. Henderson.

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Printable version | May 26, 2022 3:28:49 am |