In the three years since the murder of Jo Cox MP by a far-right extremist, and against a backdrop of communities divided by Brexit, museums across the country have taken Cox’s words – “We have far more in common than the things that divide us” – as a rallying cry.
We have worked with communities to co-curate exhibitions and activities that celebrate migration and chart the welcome Britain has historically given to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and the parallels with people moving to Britain today for work or sanctuary.
My colleagues and I took Cox’s words as our starting point for Doncaster 1914-18’s Welcome to Doncaster project, which saw us work with refugees and asylum seekers living in Doncaster today, to explore what life was like for Belgian refugees in the town during the first world war.
In this we were inspired by the Museum of Cardiff’s earlier work with Syrian refugee families and the work of the Migration Museum project, which began in 2013, and is itself inspired by earlier museums of migration in the US, Australia and Europe.
Less than 10 miles from Cox’s former constituency of Batley and Spen, in a city renowned for its diversity, where nearly a fifth of the population are minority ethnic, A City and its Welcome: Three Centuries of Migrating to Leeds at Leeds City Museum tells the stories of the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have made Leeds their home for centuries.
The exhibition has been co-curated with a dedicated community advisory panel and draws on loans from around 35 lenders who arrived in Leeds from a range of European, African, Caribbean and Asian countries.
The exhibition is accompanied by a series of community-curated displays across the museum telling migration stories, as well as a programme of events focusing on migration themes. The museum’s youth panel, the “preservative party”, have also created a printed trail following migration stories through the permanent displays.
The exhibition opens with a chronological overview, charting the city’s long history of migration. Mesolithic flint blades and a palaeolithic hand axe are used to demonstrate that people began migrating to Leeds 9,000 years ago. A prominent, effective and visually arresting timeline explores different waves of migration into the city from the late-19th century to today.
Significance of global communities
First came eastern European and Jewish refugees to Leeds fleeing persecution, war and economic hardship, including Lithuanian-born Montague Burton and Polish-Jewish Michael Marks, whose businesses Burton Menswear and Marks & Spencer clothed a significant proportion of the British population throughout most of the 20th century and into the 21st. In fact, we learn later in the gallery – where a classic Burton two-piece suit is on display – that by the 1940s, 40% of British men owned a suit by the company.
Next came migrants from the Caribbean, in search of work in the “Mother Country” following the second world war. This particular influx of people included the father of Eileen Taylor, Leeds’s current Lord Mayor and the first black person to hold this office. The Windrush generation were followed by Bangladeshi and Bengali migrants coming to work in the city’s textile industry in the 60s and 70s.
Kosovan refugees arrived in the 1990s with Leeds being the first city in the UK to host them. The timeline brings us right up-to-date with the arrival of LGBTQ refugees from Africa and the Indian subcontinent fleeing persecution today.
The curatorial team worked closely with the West Yorkshire Queer Stories project on this exhibition and one of the most poignant objects, displayed close to the timeline, is the only remaining copy of an LGBT resource pack in Bengali and Bangladeshi, owned by a Bangladeshi refugee, displayed alongside his country’s flag, which he brought with him to Leeds.
The exhibition is arranged according to universally relatable themes that reinforce Cox’s words about what unites us, providing a way in for visitors, no matter what their background and how long their ancestors have been in Leeds, such as “making a home”, and “finding work”.
Entertainment and sport are threads that run through the gallery. Several objects show the links between Leeds sports teams and the welcome shown to the city’s diverse population.
A large “Leeds Welcomes Refugees” banner was flown at a Leeds Rhinos rugby league match and a Leeds United Football Club kippah (a brimless hat that people of Jewish faith wear), on loan from a Jewish resident, is also on display. There’s a nice quotation from a Jewish refugee from Germany, who said the first thing he did on arriving in Leeds was to “drop my case in the left luggage office and go to Elland Road to a football match”.
While the key message is one of welcome and reinforcing shared experience, displays do not shy away from exploring the racism and discrimination frequently faced by new migrants. Campaign material from the Remembering David Oluwale Campaign is displayed in a section entitled “A Warm Welcome?”.
Oluwale was a homeless man from Nigeria who drowned 50 years ago this year after he was assaulted by policemen who had harassed him (they were later acquitted of his manslaughter). A colourful suit with a gold waistcoat worn at the Leeds Carnival to remember Oluwale, who always wore a suit, shows how his memory is being used by campaigners in Leeds today to inspire hope and creativity.
This is a highlight of the exhibition, as are a wonderful series of collage prints by Phil Sayers and Borderline printmakers, which were made in the 1980s and are on display for the first time.
Two of the prints explore media coverage of Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech and a “colour bar” put in place at a Leeds pub shortly after the British Tory politician’s inflammatory and divisive speech. These are a reminder in these Brexit-blighted times of how politicians can stoke racial hatred during periods of austerity and tear communities apart.
The exhibition is quite text-heavy and would benefit from more interactive elements, such as asking visitors to give their voice to issues explored in the gallery. But a simple paper-based feedback mechanism that invites people to share their migration stories features some interesting and moving contributions.Hopefully this exhibition will encourage more people to come forward to share their objects and stories with the museum. Leeds City Museum sits at the heart of its community and the more contemporary collecting the institution does, the more it will develop to reflect that.
Jude Holland is the project manager at Heritage Doncaster and learning manager at Barnsley Museums
- Cost £13,000
- Main funders Leeds City Council; Arts Council England
- Exhibition design Leeds City Museum
- Graphic design Journal
- Interpretation Leeds City Museum; community advisory panel
- Film Opal Video; Yorkshire Film Archive
- Lighting Leeds City Museum
- Display cases TESS Demountable
- Exhibition ends 5 January 2020
- Admission Free