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The Migration Museum: Re-Evaluating Britain's 'Island Story' with Matthew Plowright

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).

Matthew Plowright is Head of Communications at the Migration Museum, an organisation that explores the many ways in which the movement of people to and from Britain across the ages has shaped who we are – as individuals, as communities, and as a nation. The museum stages an acclaimed programme of exhibitions, events and education workshops throughout the UK, as well as in an arts and community space, The Workshop, in South London. The current exhibition at the Migration Museum, ‘Room to Breathe’, is an immersive experience inviting visitors to journey through a series of rooms – from a bedroom to a classroom, a kitchen to a barber’s shop – in which stories from generations of new arrivals to Britain are brought to life through audio, films, photography and personal objects. Matthew Plowright offers insight into the objectives of the Migration Museum, the project’s exhibitions and events, and reflects on the meaning of the term ‘migration’ today.

Call me by my name (Image: Kajal Nisha Patel and Migration Museum)

In what way does the  work of the Migration Museum engage with the theme of ‘islands’?

As our trustee, historian and author David Olusoga explored in our most recent Annual Lecture at the Migration Museum, there is a pervading image of Britain as an independent island nation, separate from the European continent and somehow ‘free’ or ‘immune’ from ‘foreign’ influence, that has underpinned dominant notions of Britain and Britishness for centuries – and continues to do so today.

We have found ways, in our use of language and our writing of history, to minimise our interactions with other peoples and other nations – migrants, allies and subjects of the former empire. This ‘island story’ narrative is both historically inaccurate and overlooks just how global, international and connected Britain has always been – and the constant ebb and flow of people, culture, language, goods and influences to and from these islands over thousands of years.

The work of the Migration Museum aims to put this ebb and flow at the centre of our national story, where we think it belongs. We believe that there is a need for a Migration Museum in Britain, because migration is such an integral part of our history and something that unites us all – people have been coming and going from these islands for thousands of years and if you peel back the layers of anyone’s family history in Britain, you will find migration stories – whether of immigration, emigration or both. And yet migration is not an integral part of the mainstream ‘national’ historical narrative, nor of mainstream conceptions about what it means to be British, while migration remains a highly divisive and polarising issue. Britain has thousands of museums, many of which explore aspects of migration through their collections, but none of which is dedicated to this important theme that connects and shapes us all. We believe that this is a major gap in our cultural landscape and contributes to migration being such a divisive and contested issue.

Colours of Kindness, Part of Room to Breathe at the Migration Museum (Image: Migration Museum)

How does the Migration Museum Project help to build better relationships within and between communities? Are there any new projects in the pipeline?

We aim to be a cultural space in which people can come together to share stories and experiences and to explore, discuss and reflect on themes of migration and identity which go to the heart of who we are today, a museum in which everyone can have a voice and feel represented and find their own place in Britain’s migration story, and an institution that can help to contextualise and humanise in creative, inspiring and accessible ways a topic that is so often discussed in terms of numbers, policies and economic cost benefit. Migration is a complex issue and there is no single narrative and no simplistic conclusions to be drawn, but, through placing contemporary migration themes in historical context and by enabling people from different communities and backgrounds to see the world through each other’s eyes, we hope to provide a forum in which important questions about migration and identity can be discussed and explored away from the polarised and often angry debates in politics and the media.

Through our varied programme of exhibitions, events and activities, we aim to engage a wide range of individuals and communities, including those who may have conflicted views about migration and its impacts and those who may not see migration as relevant or of interest to them. We have recently recruited a Head of Public Engagement to increase our activities in terms of reaching and engaging as wide a range of audiences as possible and bringing individuals and communities from different backgrounds and with different views and experiences on migration together through shared activities such as cooking classes, art workshops and more.

Visitors browse Humanae by Angelica Dass, part of the Migration Museum's No Turning Back exhibition (Image: Migration Museum)

To what extent has our understanding of migration changed over the years? How should this term be interpreted today?

Migration is often framed as a contemporary phenomenon, yet one of our aims is to show that people have been arriving and departing these shores for thousands of years, and that many of the contemporary debates and concerns about migration have historical precedents and parallels.

Our previous exhibition, No Turning Back: Seven Migration Moments that Changed Britain, used uncertainty about what Brexit might mean for migration and Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world as starting points from which to explore previous moments in British history that had profound effects on the nation and its people – and which continue to resonate today. The exhibition explored seven turning points to highlight that migration and the mixed feelings it arouses is nothing new: it is a deep, tidal ebb-and-flow commotion that has been shaping Britain for centuries. These included the expulsion of England’s entire Jewish population in 1290, the first East India Company voyage to the Indian sub-continent in 1607, the arrival of tens of thousands of Huguenot refugees in the 1680s, the Aliens Act of 1905, and the first commercial passenger jet flight by British Airways in the 1950s.

We also aim to show that even contemporary migration topics and developments, such as the Calais camp, which was officially demolished in October 2016 and which was the subject of our Call Me By My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond exhibition that we first staged in the summer of 2016, have deep historical roots – there had been a refugee and migrant camp in existence in Calais for more than two decades, Calais was the departure point for tens of thousands of protestants fleeing France for Britain in the late seventeenth century and was for several hundred years ruled directly by the English crown.

Migration as a term today in Britain is often used synonymously with immigration, yet emigration is as much a part of migration as immigration, and contemporary debates around immigration in Britain often tend to overlook the fact that, for much of our history, we have been a nation of net emigration, not immigration. Our next exhibition, Departures, planned for 2020 (to coincide, in part at least, with the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage to North America), will focus on emigration stories across the centuries.

Room to Breathe at the Migration Museum (Image: Migration Museum and Poppy Williams)

How can art be used to convey and investigate the meaning of migration?

We regularly use art as a way of exploring migration themes through our exhibitions, many of which have featured newly commissioned artwork by established and emerging artists across a wide range of mediums, including painting, illustrations, installations, sculpture, photography, audio, video and animation.

Migration is a complex, multi-faceted topic and we aim to provide multiple ways in for audiences and multiple ways of exploring migration-related stories, themes and emotions in creative and thought-provoking ways. Art is a powerful medium through which to do so.

We aim to provide a platform for artists from all backgrounds, including refugee and migrant artists, to present their work to a wide range of audiences. Our Call Me By My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond exhibition, for example, featured a wide range of artwork produced by refugee and migrant artists, who at the time were either in the Calais camp or who had passed through the camp. This artistic approach enabled us to highlight the creativity and human stories behind the often sensationalist and depersonalised headlines about the camp, which dominated the British media in particular at the time.

We enable artists to speak directly to our audiences in their own words – for example, by inviting all exhibiting artists to write their own captions and descriptions and by hosting regular art workshops and meet-the-artist sessions. In our current Room to Breathe exhibition, we have created an art studio, in which a different migrant artist-in-residence is taking up residence each month, working from the studio within the exhibition and running a series of participatory workshops and meet-the-artist sessions. We hope that staff and students at The Courtauld will come along and participate in our upcoming art workshops and events.

‘Room to Breathe’ was on at the Migration Museum at The Workshop (26 Lambeth High St, London, SE1 7AG) until 28 July 2019. They also stage a varied series of events and pop-up exhibitions. For opening hours, visitor information and what’s on, please visit, or check them out on Twitter (@MigrationUK), Instagram (@MigrationMuseumUK) or Facebook (@MigrationMuseumUK).

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