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Punjabi aunties to gypsies: London’s Migration Museum challenges the idea of Britishness

It tells the ‘under-represented story’ of migrants and how they have shaped the British identity.

Capturing the melange of cultures, races and ethnicities that make up Britain, the first Migration Museum in London aims to become the go-to destination for those interested in the country’s migration history.

The museum will help fill a “clear gap in the cultural landscape” of Britain, its director Sophie Henderson said.

Migrants are under-represented in cultural display and most people do not know of the grand sweep of migration to and from Britain, Henderson said. “The aim is to illuminate this under-represented story,” she added. “Britain’s migration story is incredibly rich and fascinating. It goes back thousands of years. It’s not only immigration but also emigration. Looking at the big picture, it is a to and fro. People would welcome a place to think about migration as it’s the topic on everyone’s mind.”

My Grandparents' Shop, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Sir Stephen Sedley
My Grandparents' Shop, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Sir Stephen Sedley
Vaisakhi, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Kajal Nisha Patel.
Vaisakhi, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Kajal Nisha Patel.

The museum does not have a permanent home yet. Since it was established in 2013, exhibitions have been held in different parts of the country. Now, it has moved to The Workshop on London’s South Bank for a year. “This is a step towards our goal of having a permanent migration museum in UK,” Henderson said. “This is our opportunity to test ideas and show people what we can do.”

Currently, the museum houses two exhibits. The 100 Images of Migration exhibit is ever-evolving. It is shown at different places, and each time it is different. For this exhibit, the museum reached out to people through The Guardian and asked amateur and professional photographers to send in their work on what migration meant to them.

Though it’s called 100 Images of Migration, there are about 700 images displaying the motley of cultures that is Britain. There are family portraits in black and white, pictures of festivals and weddings being celebrated, demonstrations being held, race riots, pictures of families emigrating and squalid quarters in bustling cities.

Yasser, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Dharmendra Patel.
Yasser, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Dharmendra Patel.
Nurses Eating Lunch, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Peter Marlowe.
Nurses Eating Lunch, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Peter Marlowe.

The museum does not advocate a policy on the refugee crisis in Europe but it does highlight the plight of refugees. “We are trying to get behind the headlines and humanise people, and this is something which connects with people,” Henderson said. “The role of the museum in the migration crisis is to give people a place to think and to get away from the soundbites in the newspapers, which simplify the conversation.”

To walk through Call Me by Name, the other exhibition, is like conversing with refugees caught in Calais, a now demolished camp on the French coast. There are paintings and creations made by refugees and by artists.

One creation on display is a curtain made of tear gas canisters that were used against refugees when the authorities came to demolish the camp. It is the work of a refugee artist called Alpha. Another artwork titled Wanderers by the artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen shows a mass of over 300 tiny figures walking in the same direction. If you look closely, you notice that each of the plasticine figures is unique.

Wanderers by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.
Wanderers by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.
Worshippers, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Kajal Nisha Patel
Worshippers, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Kajal Nisha Patel

Nick Ellwood, an illustrator who spent time at a Calais cafe speaking with refugees and making their sketches, has exhibited his drawings on drapes of translucent sheets that hang from the ceiling.

Asked about the significance of the Migration Museum, Marijn Nieuwenhuis, a teaching fellow of International Relations and East Asia at the University of Warwick, said, “I think it is more important now than it has been in a very long time to have a migration museum in Britain, given the tensions that exist in the British society as a result of Brexit or the border crisis.”

He added, “I think it’s politically urgent to have such a museum and disseminate the message that migration is a natural phenomenon, that we all come from somewhere and that we all have stories to tell. We shouldn’t be ashamed of those stories, we should be proud of them because that is who we are.”

Nieuwenhuis, who has lived throughout Europe and China, comes from a family of Ukrainian Jews who moved to Western Europe in the early 20th century. Many members of his family died in the Second World War.

British Gypsies, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Lisa Ebert.
British Gypsies, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Lisa Ebert.
Race Riots in Lewisham 1977, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © by Peter Marlow.
Race Riots in Lewisham 1977, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © by Peter Marlow.

Divya Tolia-Kelly, associate professor in the Department of Geography at Durham University, believes having a migration museum is of “anti-racist importance”. “There is an understanding of the UK and its history that often excludes the history of migration,” she said. “We have an account of Britishness that does not always readily acknowledge the influence from overseas, in particular the elements of the empire or the Commonwealth that are part and parcel of British society. Tea is grown in China. The enthusiasm for sweetness in biscuits and cakes is a legacy of sugar plantations and Britain’s role in slavery and trade.”

Pointing out the even people such as Shakespeare, Keats, Byron and Wordsworth had conversations with poets and artists internationally, Tolia-Kelly said, “It is important to remember the history of exchange of ideas. With the rise of fascists in the UK, there is a fantasy that there is a white British bloodline and its relation with territory, but most people have connections with the Commonwealth and Europe.”

“The migration museum is about elevating migrants from being seen as savages or victims or people who dilute the culture,” she added. “The essence of Englishness is based on relations with African-Caribbean communities who came in the 1950s, and with Indians and French, among others. England isn’t England without these relationships.”

Cazenove Road, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Christian Sinibaldi.
Cazenove Road, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Christian Sinibaldi.
No, This is England, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Kajal Nisha Patel.
No, This is England, from the Migration Museum's '100 Images of Migration' exhibition © Kajal Nisha Patel.

The Migration Museum now plans to collaborate with museums in and outside Britain. It has launched the Migration Musuem Network to gather information from British museums on their work relating to migration. The network is funded by the UK’s Arts Council.

Apart from working to “provoke thoughts and challenge people’s opinions and beliefs”, the museum seeks to be a place “where everyone can feel at home”.

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