The tale of migrants from the land of colonists

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 15, 2018

‘The Patriot’, from the Migration Museum’s 100 Images of Migration exhibition   -  Kajal Nisha Patel

The Migration Museum in London will tell the stories of Britain’s immigrants, including its Indian Diaspora

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 past 5-10 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 who heads the project.

Giving context

“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.”

The project has been running museums in temporary venues for a couple of years, and is one of the first projects in the UK to focus specifically on migration in a more permanent way.

It comes at a time as issues of migration and race have become particularly emotionally charged, and prominent in political debate, with a recent vicious attack on an asylum seeker here heightening concerns about intolerance and hate crimes.

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

A second exhibition, based on a past competition run with the Guardian newspaper, will provide snapshots of the lives of migrants over the years, drawn from recent images, family photographs and other collections. Several tell the lives of the Indian community in Leicester — from a Muslim wedding to Vaisakhi celebrations, to a woman in a sari proudly standing under the English flag of St George. There’s an image of the Indian community in Southall protesting the death of an anti-racism activist in 1979, and an advert taken out by Leicester City Council in a Uganda newspaper in 1972 urging Asians in the country not to come to Leicester. Another clipping — of an old advert for a flat that warned “no coloured” people would be accepted — provides 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.

Sensitising gen next

Among the work the museum has done — and will continue to do — 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 Henderson. The museum has run pilot workshops with children around its Calais exhibition, and included the chance for children to meet a young person who had arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied refugee. “It’s 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 the 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 Henderson.

Published on April 24, 2017

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