After the Grenfell Tower fire, Londoners’ origins and living conditions are back at the centre of public debate. Whilst the number of victims remains unclear, the disaster strikingly questions our own personal trajectories in and out of the capital. If, like me, you are searching for answers, two museums help in filling the gaps, by casting light on the lives of past Londoners. Looking backwards for a moment helps us remember our roots and where we are heading towards, in one of the busiest cities in the world. It is time to connect with and understand the reality of migrants and refugees who live next to us, and yet who become visible and identified as ‘like us’ when disappearing.
The glass roof of the synagogue. Photographer credit: Philip Black. 19 Princelet Street.
Right behind Spitalfields market, 19 Princelet Street hosts Europe’s first museum of immigration and diversity. Built in 1719, the house was the home of a family of Huguenot immigrants, fleeing the religious persecution plaguing France. Sounds familiar, right? Later waves of immigrants came to occupy the house, and in 1869 a synagogue was built over the backyard garden; the large basement underneath even turned much later into a refuge to fight against fascists. Run by a multi-cultural team of dedicated volunteers, the museum is now a space of encounters and open dialogue. It is a rare experience to say the least: visitors, volunteers and journalists readily chat and mix to learn about and discuss the building together. The narrow and crumbling corridors give you a palpable sense of the proximity and strong solidarity that people have shared here. However, this incredible Grade II* building full of lived histories is only open to the public a few days a year, due to its dilapidated condition. So don’t miss the next opening on Sunday 25 June from 2pm to 6pm, and make sure to check the cramped closet at the end of the synagogue. Its crooked and shabby structure is a clear example of how the house was gradually extended and altered to fit the needs of successive user.
The museum of immigration continually refreshed by the stories that visitors share and the languages they speak. Photographer credit: Philip Black.
More cheerful, but as quirky and culturally significant, is Pollock’s Toy Museum, tucked away from the crowded bars of Goodge Street. Set in two houses of the 1780s and 1880s, the marvellous collections span traditional, folk and early industrial toys from all over the world until the sixties. My favourites include the glazed bread dough miniatures from Ecuador on the right, as you enter the staircase, the seventeenth-century Italian board games on your way upstairs, and a 4000-year-old wooden mouse from Egypt hidden in the third room. Not only are the houses themselves worth the trip, but the display is fantastic! It really feels like doing a treasure hunt in a human-sized doll house packed with little cabinets of curiosity. Hold on to the useful leaflet, open your eyes wide, and I guarantee you will find something that reminds you of home and your childhood. This unique museum offers a playful way to remember where you come from, and what you share with the people who came before you. A must-see for anyone looking for missing identities.