The impact of immigration on life in Britain has dominated political debate in the UK in recent years. Three quarters of the British public believe immigration should be reduced, as headline after headline points to the threat migrants pose to the British way of life. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of articles in newspapers that mentioned “immigration” rose year on year, reaching an average of 846 articles per month. In the week before the Brexit vote, an Ipsos Mori poll found that immigration was the most important issue in the minds of voters.
But ironically, for all the talk about “immigrants” and “foreigners," the country has never had a real conversation about the role of migration in shaping Britain.
That is set to change with the opening of the Migration Museum in London, a bold new addition to Britain’s cultural landscape that seeks to tell the story of “how migration has shaped Britain across the ages.” Based in Lambeth, just across the river from the Houses of Parliament, the museum aims to explore “the great and complicated underlying story of comings and goings, both to and from British shores.”
Its arrival is long overdue. While the changes brought about by immigration might feel like a contemporary concern, migration is as old as Britain itself. “It’s everybody’s story,” says Barbara Roche, a former immigration minister and now Chair of Trustees for the Migration Museum. “The only difference between people is how long ago they came.”
The optimism and openness of the project was visible at the official launch event last week, with live music and speeches from former child refugee Lord Alf Dubs and Sri Lankan-born BBC newsreader George Alagiah.
“The Migration Museum could be a place where people who are British by birth or by choice can discover and celebrate the story of this country,” said Alagiah.
“Imagine a place of honest reflection and quiet celebration.”
The museum’s vision of migration is hopeful but honest. Its opening exhibition, “Call Me by My Name” is a moving record of the former "Jungle" camp in Calais, exploring the individual voices of refugees who inhabited this uncertain space in their search for home.
A rack of life jackets hangs in a haunting display — nicknamed "death jackets," they were sold to refugees despite being fake. Some are deliberately branded with Disney characters designed to appeal to children about to embark on a journey that could cost them their lives.
Further along, quotes hang from the walls to give voice to the human lives behind the headlines:
“Last time, when I got caught at the ferry it was at the last security check, by the British police. They treated me like a gentleman, they put the torch under the truck and said: ‘You have to come out of there now, Sir’. When they called me Sir, I wanted to go to England with all my heart."
Osman, from Sudan.
The story of migration to Britain is older than the country as we know it. From first centuryarchaeological evidence of people from North Africa and Syria on the island we now call Britain, to the arrival of French Protestant refugees in the 17th century, or passengers arriving on the Windrush in the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain has always been shaped by the movement of people. However, the story of migration to and from the UK is not an easy one — the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 and the relationship between current patterns of migration and Britain’s imperial past reveal the complex layers of history on the road to integration.
But there are also moments to celebrate. Plans are underway for “No Turning Back,” an autumn exhibition exploring seven migration moments that changed Britain. It will look as far back as the Middle Ages and into the future to explore the fundamental role migration has played in Britain’s national story.
The museum will occupy its current space at The Workshop in Lambeth until February 2018, and hopes to secure a permanent space to bring its vision to life. As the country seeks to redefine its identity and its relationship with the wider world, the Migration Museum is an opportunity for Britain to offer a fuller, richer picture of what it really means to be British.