In early 2020, the Migration Museum opened in a former H&M unit in a busy south-east London shopping centre – part of a growing trend of museums and arts organisations using former retail spaces. And while we were open for only a month before the onset of the pandemic, and intermittently since, we love it.
A shopping centre is a democratic space used by people of all backgrounds and ages. Most of our visitors are passersby. But we’ve been struck by how receptive almost everyone is to our museum and the themes that we explore. There is a strong sense of relevance and personal connection for the people we’ve welcomed through our doors.
We continue to engage with our loyal core audience built up over the past eight years, but we are also meeting thousands of new people who had never heard of us, and who can help us to shape what a permanent migration museum for the UK should look and feel like. That is what the huge topic of migration deserves: a landmark cultural institution that places migration at the heart of our national story.
And events over the past year – from Black Lives Matter and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people of colour, to Brexit and attempts to stir up divisions over Britain’s reckoning with its imperial past – have strengthened our resolve. Now more than ever we need a space where people can come together to reflect, share experiences and learn about how migration has shaped us all.
Migration is a massive topic with UK-wide resonance and significance, and we cannot hope to achieve our mission alone – and nor do we seek to. Our Migration Network supports the sector to explore and amplify vital themes key to museums and our audiences. Each event covers a wide range of content and brings people together to share knowledge and examples of best practice.
There is an amazing appetite for the Migration Network. We’re so thankful for the collaborative spirit across our sector and beyond, despite hugely challenging circumstances. Almost 400 museums and heritage sector professionals from across the UK have attended and contributed to Migration Network events – and we’re only halfway through this cycle.
We’ve heard anecdotally that connections people have made at our events have led to collaboration. We’re following up with attendees to learn more about this and to make sure that our network is as useful as possible. We are looking forward to developing it further.
The extraordinary events of the past year have highlighted the important role that museums and cultural institutions can play in providing forums for exploration, learning and conversations away from the increasingly polarised – and sometimes ill-informed – discourse taking place in the media, online and in politics.
That is what is shaping our work towards establishing the Migration Museum. And via our Migration Network, we are supporting and building confidence among the many museums and heritage organisations that are already doing this. Why not join us?
Emily Miller is the head of learning and partnerships at the Migration Museum and coordinates the Migration Network