Migration is still a burning issue in the UK and across the world. Dealing with the movement of people has challenged governments and unleashed destructive populist forces in Europe and the US.
Should museums in the UK avoid this hot political potato or is it incumbent on them to acknowledge the huge impact that immigration and emigration have made on our culture?
The traditional view has been that as museums are guardians of national or local culture and identity, migration is an irrelevant or marginal issue. However, as history reveals how waves of migrants have influenced local and national identities, museums are recognising they have a role in explaining those influences, as well as reaching out to new and diverse audiences.
As a result, we have seen the rise of international museums devoted to migration. The forerunner is the Adelaide Migration Museum in Australia, which opened in 1986. It was followed in 1990 by the museum on Ellis Island in New York. Since then, migration museums have opened in Argentina, Brazil, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and Denmark. There are also museums that have dedicated a gallery to the subject in Berlin, Genoa, Sydney, New York and Baltimore.
The latest addition to the list is Epic, The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin. It’s the brainchild of former Coca-Cola chief executive Neville Isdell, an emigrant from Armagh, who rescued an aborted plan for a National Diaspora Centre that had been abandoned by national and local authorities as a result of the Irish economic crisis.
He invested €15m in the development of the former dock building from where emigrants left Ireland for America, and opened it as a museum in 2017. It attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year, including high-profile names such as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and a delegation from the Chinese Communist Party.
Isdell drew heavily on the model of Titanic Belfast, which markets itself more as a family attraction than a traditional museum, and he is keen to dispel the idea that there are any dusty artefacts on show at Epic. Designed by Event Communications, the same team that created Titanic, Epic emphasises an interactive visitor experience. A series of galleries, each devoted to a different thematic aspect of the Irish diaspora, feature touchscreens, motion-sensor quizzes and an array of powerful audio and video effects.
Ins and outs
The museum is boldly celebratory, though it does not gloss over the hunger, poverty and conflict that contributed to the mass exodus of Irish people through the centuries. “We are a museum of emigration, not immigration,” says the deputy director Jessica Traynor. “Our stories are meant to show the welcome the Irish received in other countries. It’s not just about what’s been lost, but about what’s been gained.”
Individual stories lead visitors through the tumultuous history of Irish men and women abroad, including those of Jennie Hodges, who fought as a man in the American Civil War; “Spitfire Paddy” Pat Finucane, an RAF fighter pilot during the second world war; a police commissioner in Chicago who recorded a library of old Irish songs; pioneering scientists, businessmen and engineers; and writers whose words have won Nobel prizes. The exhibition also features the stories of villains such as Ned Kelly and Billy the Kid.
Epic houses a state-of-the-art genealogy centre, the Irish Family History Centre, which helps visitors uncover their Irish ancestry. The museum is also partnering with the Irish government’s foreign department on a travelling exhibition for Irish embassies.
Isdell has admitted that his economic model was met with some scepticism. It is a commercial enterprise, heavily dependent on income from tickets (entry is €15) and fundraising, but he insists that profitability is the key to sustainability.
Could it be a model for the UK to follow? Although there have been countless exhibitions in national and regional museums looking at the movement of people and their impact on our history, there is still only one permanent gallery dedicated to the subject of migration – Destination Tyneside at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle – and no national museum.
The Museum Migration Project aims to change that. Now in its eighth year, it has yet to find a permanent home, although from its temporary base in Lambeth, London, it has attracted thousands of visitors and a roster of high-profile supporters such as the architect David Adjaye, BBC journalist George Alagiah, historian David Olusoga and former MP and Labour immigration minister Barbara Roche, who chairs the project’s trustees.
Adjaye believes such a museum would help generations of black children to feel part of “the language, DNA and roots” of the UK. “It is really amazingly important for the representation of people in the cultural tropes of the nation,” he says.
Since its inception, the Migration Museum project has been busy holding pop-up exhibitions, events, activities and workshops, as well as creating educational resources for schools.
Funding from Arts Council England has enabled the project to set up a Migration Museums Network, which supports museum professionals who want to explore the issue in their own work.
The network responded to a real need, says Sophie Henderson, the director of the Migration Museum. “A survey of museums showed that there was a willingness to address the issue of migration, but people were worried about the sensitivity of the issue and felt they lacked the right expertise.”
She admits that the project was initially received with “a degree of circumspection” on the part of the museum sector. “But now we have a solid track record of achievement, people are responding. I don’t think for a moment that we know how to do this better than everyone else, but we see our role as enabling and facilitating others.”
The project’s main aim is still to establish a permanent home in London. It came close in 2016. A partnership with Southwark Council, which would have involved a dedicated museum as part of another development proposal in the borough did not work out because of planning difficulties. But there is confidence that another venue can be found.
“Practically and symbolically, we need a degree of permanence,” says Henderson. A dedicated space with a national profile would “shed light on the central role that migration has played in making us who we are today – as individuals, as communities and as a nation”. A national museum is “a cultural space for people to talk about immigration, a different kind of space where you can engage with a difficult issue”.
However, she is keen to emphasise that the project is not about politics. “We are not a preachy organisation, and there is no agenda other than encouraging people to live well together,” adds Henderson. “Britain’s migration story is for everybody.”
Chris Whitehead, a professor at Newcastle University, is a supporter of the project. His study of migration museums shows they not only create spaces for public debate, but also have a key role in fostering social cohesion.
“Some museums are explicit about what they are doing,” he says, citing the example of Italian museums. They point out to Italians the long history of their own migrations and clearly make the comparison between their own families leaving for other parts of Europe or the US with the situation of modern migrants. “The museums have a clear civil, pedagogical role, and in their approach, are attempting to engender empathy,” he says.
But other museums, such as Epic and the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, are aimed less at the local population and more visitors from emigrant families.
“Epic, for example, is unashamedly celebratory and there is a desire to make people feel good at the end,” says Whitehead. “You can go and trace your Irish ancestry in the shop, which obviously has appeal to Irish Americans, for example.”
This attempt at emotional engagement is all very well, but there is also a need to look at the underlying causes of global migration, he says. And museums should acknowledge the impact of emigrants from Europe on the lands that they migrated to as a form of colonialism.
“The colonial cities are not places like Jakarta, they are Liverpool, London or Amsterdam.”
A national museum would demonstrate that the UK is facing up to these sorts of issues in its past, says Whitehead. He wants to see permanent and ongoing funding for the project and more vocal support from the sector.
But even if the project is successful in creating a national museum, he believes it would not absolve other museums around the country of the moral responsibility to tackle the issue.
“It’s important to have a deeper focus on migration across the museum sector. It will depend on the place and the individual museum, of course, but if museums don’t engage with this aspect of our story, they would, in fact, be guilty of cleaning up history because some parts of it are too difficult or challenging.”
Patrick Kelly is a freelance journalist