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Museums are working hard to create a deeper understanding of migration
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Rob Sharp
Behind an anonymous facade, up a flight of stairs in a central London building, the contents of a large room inject colour into an otherwise under-utilised structure.

Hundreds of miniature black figures walking towards what appears to be an uncertain future comprise one artwork on show. Another work, a photograph, has a large group of migrants huddled together on a boat headed to Greece.

Migration continues to dominate public discourse in this country. From the 2015 and 2017 general elections in Britain, to last year’s EU referendum and elections in the US, Germany, France, Holland and Austria, the subject has been a key part of candidates’ policies and the often sensationalist media coverage accompanying them.

The museum sector offers an opportunity to create a more nuanced understanding around migration, and its multifarious forms and causes. Telling the personal stories of migrants puts their experience into the wider context of British history, without being patronising or reverting to stereotypes. But such representations are not without their cultural, economic and ethical challenges, not least because labelling people as “migrants” is to label them as different.

In April, the Migration Museum Project, an initiative to establish Britain’s first permanent museum devoted to the subject of migration, launched its most significant project to date. The institution has secured a space in Lambeth, south London, until at least next year.

The museum resides in a back street in an underdeveloped part of the capital. A rectangular space with white- washed walls plays host to shows including Call Me By Name, an exhibition (until 31 July) about the Calais refugee camp cleared late last year.

Displays include the Wanderers, the aforementioned 300-figurine installation by Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen. There is also British photographer Daniel Castro’s Arrival (2015), showing 60 people packed on a tiny boat in the waters off Lesbos, Greece.

“Migration is such a preoccupation, it’s the thing everyone is talking about all the time,” says Sophie Henderson, the museum’s director. “It seems to me that a cultural space that gives you some context to make sense of it might be welcome.”

Securing premises and attracting backers have been the biggest challenges, but Hen- derson is confident that a permanent space will be found. Since 2013, the project has partnered with others to deliver its work, but the Lambeth space is its own.

“From the sheer number of people who have visited and said they’d like to do some- thing in our space, from book launches to community events, it seems people want to get involved,” Henderson says.

The organisation has also worked in partnership to create the Migration Museums Network, sharing best practice on migration and related themes nationwide.

Tales from Wales

There are migration stories everywhere, as the network has shown. Cardiff Migration Stories, a publication by the think- tank Runnymede Trust, shows that the city has attracted migrants from all over the world for more than 200 years. There are the Somali seamen who worked on coal ships and settled in Cardiff from the late- 19th century.

There is the Norwegian sailors’ church, founded in 1868 and attended by a young Roald Dahl, the child of Norwegian immigrant parents. People from Cape Verde, Sudan, Nigeria, Ireland, Yemen and Pakistan also call the city home.

Victoria Rogers, the manager of Cardiff Story Museum, says migrant stories are woven into the venue’s fabric. “We are upfront about the fact that Cardiff would not be here if it weren’t for people moving in from all parts of the world,” she says, highlighting how the city’s population grew almost 30-fold between the start of the 19th and 20th centuries. “We look at migration throughout Cardiff’s history, but also contemporary migrants who have come here. Migration is not a minority group interest.”

The institution has worked with local charities on workshops to introduce itself to Syrian migrant families. Challenges included language and transport barriers for those unfamiliar with the city.

“There’s no ‘one size fits all’,” says Rogers. “We did an object-handling session and wanted those attending to feel that this was their museum, that they were part of Cardiff’s story. That they have ownership of the museum, can meet friends here and come on family fun days as much as anyone else who uses the museum in that way.”

Embracing communities

Migration, of course, is nothing new and has been considered in many ways for decades despite its particularly fervent recent politicisation. London’s Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, founded by Russian émigré artist Lazar Berson in 1915 to build a collection by Jewish artists, rebranded in 2001 to serve other communities. An audit in 2001 found that two-thirds of the gallery’s collection was by migrant artists, says Rachel Dickson, the head of curatorial services at the museum.

For many years Ben Uri has exhibited immigrant artists from outside its collection, such as work by Ghanaian and Korean photographers. Its 2016 show Unexpected included work on migration by artists from Kurdish, Bosnian and Congolese backgrounds, among others. This summer, the exhibition Art Out of the Bloodlands: A Century of Polish Artists in Britain featured works by Polish artists who continue to work in this country.

“If your institution is named something specific, with a word like Jewish, you limit your audience principally to those connected,” Dickson says. “It’s human nature. If we kept using the name London Jewish Museum of Art we would not be able to widen our audience to reflect the universality of the migration experience so prevalent in London and the UK.

“The Jewish community in London is too small to proportionately support a specialist art museum and overall is becoming more orthodox. They are less likely to come to a secular gallery. Therefore we would not be able to grow our audience and share the immigrant experience with a title like that.”

Challenges to this broadening approach include some people in the Jewish community potentially seeing this as under-emphasising the gallery’s heritage. “We had to work hard to persuade people that we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Dickson says.

Destination Tyneside, a gallery exploring the region’s diversity and migration, opened within Newcastle’s Discovery Museum in 2013. The gallery follows six historic characters from the likes of Ireland, Poland, Yemen and Italy as they settle in the area.

“It was prompted by the fact that people perceived the north-east as monocultural and if you were working around the streets of Tyneside 30 or 40 years ago it would have been different to walking about the streets of Bradford or Bury or London,” says Iain Watson, the director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. “We were aware that wasn’t a picture of the actual story.”

Avaes Mohammed, the director of thinktank British Future, favours an inclusive approach. The organisation’s Unknown and Untold project, a partnership with New Horizons in British Islam, an organisation promoting reform in Muslim thought, looks at the contribution made by the 400,000 Indian Muslims who served in the British army during the first world war.

Mohammed says such a story is “not a minority story, it’s one of Britishness” and could be used to unite audiences. “Minority stories don’t just have to be relevant to minority audiences,” he says.

“The cultural sector, including museums, has the challenge of needing to think more creatively about the content with which it engages. The sector must ensure it mirrors the story that Britain today is an interwoven narrative, one that speaks to as many people as possible. Our heritage is shared.”

Mohammed highlights how the discourse around Brexit shows the requirement to meet the needs of different classes within the cultural sector. “After the Brexit vote there is a desperate need to engage in difficult conversations – they are only difficult because people are afraid to have them.”

Challenging views

Museums must be sensitive to a plurality of views. Divisive events such as the EU refer- endum have thrown a spotlight on political polarisation, highlighting people’s differing stances towards issues including migration, not always with the nuance such a complex subject requires.

Though Cardiff’s population voted to stay in the EU last year, Wales voted to leave, with a surge of hate crime seen in the country after the vote. Again, such events have a historical precedent: in 1919 the city saw a four-day race riot caused by a complicated meld of economic and cultural factors.

“There are moments in Cardiff’s history where it’s got a lot to be ashamed of, but also a lot of be proud of,” Rogers says. “It would be easy for Cardiff to be complacent. It’s important to look at migration as something mainstream and make it part and parcel of everyone’s visit.”

It’s a similar story in Tyneside. While Newcastle voted to remain, the surrounding areas of North and South Tyneside, Durham, Gateshead, Sunderland and Northumberland voted for Brexit.

“We have to be aware that not everyone in the population shares these views and that can be challenging,” Watson says. “But we’ve tried to get the message across about openness, rather than pushing a particular view on people. Hopefully museums are places where some of that dialogue can happen. We are prepared to engage with people who want to have a sensible dialogue.”

However they decide to approach this complicated subject, these museums’ openness will be the key to their success and their ability to attract broader audiences.

Rob Sharp is a freelance journalist.

The Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Manchester (16-18 November) has a session about working with refugees, which includes speakers from Oxford University Museums, the Hatton Gallery and the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

Telling the story of migration in the UK

The Runnymede Trust’s Our Migration Story initiative, an online project telling the history of migration in the UK, might become a physical exhibition, says Omar Khan, the director of the trust. The project’s website – ourmigrationstory.org.uk – takes in early and medieval migrations, early modern migrations, as well as industrial and imperial migrations, and migration over the past 100 years. Its section for teachers focuses on the new history of migration module launched by the OCR exam board for the history GCSE from September last year.

“A lot of the elements are objects, it’s not that different from the History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition at the British Museum,” Khan says. “It’s not just using texts. A physical exhibition would be a better way to engage schools, which are hard to engage with at the moment. If we could get local or national museums to help translate this into an show, it could help us connect and result in greater take-up of the module.”

Khan says that he is looking for collaborators in the museum sector. He adds that one
way of moving forward could be to pick 12 objects that exemplify the history of migration in the UK, using timelines, video, photography or digital displays to explain their relevance.

“We need to excavate the full history of migration,” he says. “Young people are interested in their local history as well as the national narrative of who we are.”

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