Migration Museum Project

April 2016
Giving people a chance to share their migration experience through personal keepsakes
We are creating a national migration museum, exploring the role of migration in Britain’s story. The Migration Museum Project stages exhibitions, events and education programmes which examine the long history of movement into and out of the UK in a fresh and engaging way.

Keepsakes remind us of people, places, and memories of our culture or childhood. A keepsake might have travelled in a suitcase from another country or be passed down through generations. Keepsakes are not part of museum collections but live in people’s homes, on their mantelpieces or even in old biscuit tins. They are more precious to their owners than many museum objects.

When we started our Keepsakes project, we wanted to give people an opportunity to share their migration experiences through personal objects that held meaning for them. Our aim was to work closely with community groups who are under-represented in museums and develop an interactive, inclusive model for exhibition design that allowed people to tell their own stories.

We realised that many immigrants may have escaped war or persecution in their own countries and may find it too raw to tell their stories or don’t want to be identified by them. With a keepsake as a focus the telling became freer and easier. People began to revalue their lives, to find pleasure in their memories, to be proud of their culture and to enjoy the sharing of it.

Others found delight in telling us intimate details and began to see how this fitted into their lives in this country. Many became conscious of the transitory nature of life and the need to pass on their own cultural values to their children and grandchildren.

Our first Keepsakes display was part of a major exhibition, Adopting Britain, at the Southbank Centre. It featured nine objects, ranging from a dictionary to a Nigerian musical instrument. During the six-month run of the exhibition, we developed partnerships and ran workshops with community groups, including Latin American, African Caribbean and Turkish Cypriot elders as well as young people from RefugeeYouth.

In these workshops, we used a series of objects to prompt conversations around migration and memory. We then asked participants to share the story behind their own Keepsakes and worked with them to write captions, allowing them to ‘curate’ their own objects. The objects and stories collected through these workshops formed our second Keepsakes exhibition at Southwark Council offices at 160 Tooley Street.

We are planning a third Keepsakes exhibition at the Idea Store in Whitechapel in April 2016. We have conducted a series of two workshops each with established groups who meet in the library, including the PrimeTime group (age 55+) and an ESOL group.

We believe we now have a formula that works well in a concentrated period of time, is much enjoyed by the participants and, with ESOL groups turns out to be an effective way of learning English. We are grateful to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation for funding this project, which has allowed us to develop partnerships, which are at the heart of the project, with local institutions, community groups and councils.

We have informally collected feedback from the participants and most have told us they immensely enjoyed making the exhibition and felt proud to have the opportunity to talk about their stories.

We are in the process of more formally assessing outcomes of the project through evaluation forms from the participants. We plan to use this feedback to improve future workshops and better understand if the project helps people feel more integrated and associate more positively with the arts and heritage sector.