The collective significance of the experiences of the 500 or so passengers who disembarked onto the docks at Tilbury that day – and of those who subsequently arrived by boat and by plane from across the fragmenting British Empire – in overcoming challenges, discrimination, and in many cases overt racism, to start new lives, build and enrich communities and contribute to the social, cultural and political fabric of the nation is difficult to overstate. Individually, everyone who arrived has their own story and their own set of memories and experiences.
At the Migration Museum Project, we provide a forum for people to share these stories and memories. One story that particularly resonates is that of Norma Seale-McConnie, who arrived in Britain from Barbados 10 years after Windrush.
“I left Barbados in 1958 on the Surriento, an Italian migrant passenger liner,’” she told us. “As I was boarding the ship, my grandmother gave me an embroidered handkerchief with something wrapped inside. She told me not to open it until I arrived in the mother country. I opened the little bundle on the train to Victoria and found this penny inside. I laughed because she had said to me that I would always have money! I’ve kept it in my purse ever since then.”
Norma loaned us the penny for an exhibition we first staged in 2015 called Keepsakes, a display of personal items that keep memories of migration and identity alive. When we displayed it at the Southbank Centre, it was the first time that the penny had left her possession in 58 years.
Norma’s story – and those of others who arrived in Britain from the Caribbean and other parts of the former British Empire post-WWII – are vital and poignant. But they are just one chapter – albeit an extremely significant one – in a much longer story.
Migration often tends to be cast in recent or contemporary terms. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Robert Winder, one of our trustees, wrote in his book Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain: “Ever since the first Jute, the first Saxon, the first Roman and the first Dane leaped off their boats and planted their feet on British mud, we have been a [migrant] nation.”
There’s a great and complicated underlying story of comings and goings that goes back for thousands of years: if you peel back the layers of anybody’s family history in Britain, you find a migration story – whether immigration, emigration, or both. As recent scholarship and archaeological discoveries have revealed, Britain has been a multi-ethnic country for thousands of years. There is no simple narrative, and certainly no simplistic conclusions to be drawn. But if we understood Britain’s migration history better, we would have a better understanding of who we are today – as individuals and as a nation.
This is why myself, backed by a skilled and dedicated team of staff, trustees and supporters, have been working for the past five years to create a national Migration Museum for Britain. The UK has one of the best cultural sectors in the world, but while we have thousands of museums dedicated to all manner of themes – from aerospace to golf, pencils to stained glass – we lack a cultural space devoted to conveying the importance of migration in the narrative of this country. This seems a strange and potentially damaging omission – and increasingly behind the times given that countries from Brazil to Australia, Denmark to the USA, all have museums dedicated to exploring migration themes.
There are many possible reasons for our lack of engagement with our migration heritage, not least anxiety about opening up discussion and debate on a potentially charged and challenging topic. But what seems clear to me, my colleagues at the Migration Museum Project and to the thousands of people from a wide range of professional and political backgrounds who have pledged their support for our museum is that, with migration at the centre of current debates around Brexit and identity, there has scarcely been a more important time for a dedicated national cultural institution exploring the central role that migration has played in shaping who we are today – as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.
We have staged exhibitions, events and education workshops exploring migration themes at venues across Britain since 2013, attended by more than 150,000 visitors and over 5,000 school children. In April 2017, we opened the Migration Museum at The Workshop in Lambeth, south London – a temporary museum in which we have staged a varied series of engaging and acclaimed exhibitions, events and education workshops, enabling us to build and engage audiences, grow links with community groups and schools, and gather feedback about what people would like to see in our permanent museum.
We have recently been offered a potential permanent venue for our museum from 2022 onwards, as part of redevelopment plans for a site opposite London Bridge station, currently being considered by Southwark Council. The proposed site would be an ideal venue for a national Migration Museum, situated in one of London’s oldest and most diverse boroughs, a focal point for arrivals and departures for thousands of years, opposite one of its busiest railway stations, and next door to Guy’s Hospital, part of our cherished National Health Service to which arrivals from the Caribbean and beyond have always made such an integral contribution.
We are still finalising plans for what precisely will be in our permanent museum. But one thing we are certain of is that personal stories, memories and experiences like Norma’s will always be at the heart of what we do. So much of the contemporary public and political discourse on migration focuses on numbers, policies and cost-benefit analyses. Yet, at root, migration is about people. A permanent national migration museum will ultimately be a fitting venue to tell their stories, and to explore and give importance to this vital theme that connects us all.
Written by Sophie Henderson