Room to Breathe: The Stories of Migration

Curators Aditi Anand and Sue McAlpine, alongside project manager Andrew Steeds, reflect on their new exhibition at the Migration Museum in London: Room to Breathe. This exhibition attempts to engage the empathy of visitors, asking them to listen to and watch other people’s stories of migration, to add their own and to continue a conversation. Historian Becky Taylor’s sister article for HWO examines the history of border control, expanding themes explored by the recent Migration and Mobility Virtual Special Issue of History Workshop Journal 

The Migration Museum Project (MMP) has been a funded charity for five years now, in the course of which we have put on five exhibitions on our own (more with others), staged hundreds of events and run an education programme which more than 7,000 pupils have participated in. Not bad for a museum with no permanent physical base.

We had one clear purpose when setting up the MMP: to show how the long history of migration into and out of this country has shaped us as a nation. It seemed to us at the time that no other cultural organisation was doing this. In addition, there seemed to be a widespread belief that migration was something that had started only after the Second World War, and that it had only ever been migration into this country; the whole story of migration out of this country seemed to have been overlooked.

We felt that, if we could all recognise the centrality of migration to our country’s history and to understand that the story of emigration was arguably longer than that of immigration (it was only in the 1980s, after all, that Britain became a net importer of people), we might end up discussing it differently, far removed from the toxic, polarised fashion in which that debate is so often held these days.

Poster promoting migration from the UK to Australia, 1928 (Wikimedia Commons)

That debate continues, however, to be as heated, as confrontational as ever, possibly – since June 2016 – even more so. What continues also to be true, though, is that there is a huge chunk of people between the hectoring extremes who have questions, concerns, issues that they would like to raise without being shouted down. In many ways, it’s that ‘anxious middle’ that we are keen to engage with in everything we do.

Our exhibitions are a crucial focus point for us. We use them as a way of showing the kinds of story we would like to tell, the tone of voice we would like to use in doing so, the different means by which we would hope to engage visitors, and the ways in which we would hope to elicit responses from them.

With Room to Breathe, we set out to do something different – to explore migration as a lived experience that happens on a personal, everyday level. Migration, at root, is a human story – everyone who has arrived in Britain, whether in the past few weeks or centuries ago, has their own story and their own particular experience of building a home and making a new life.

We want to explore the multiplicity of personal stories and the spaces that people have carved out for themselves, and to present individuals as active agents in the making of their own lives. We want to move away from the simple, totalising narratives that are often presented about migrants and explore the wide range of experiences and emotions people go through when they arrive from somewhere else – joy, freedom, resilience, prejudice, hardship, isolation. We want to share and explore the things, people and spaces that help us to cope and thrive.

Room to Breathe is by far the most immersive and interactive exhibition we have staged to date. We want visitors to discover stories, open drawers, pick up objects off shelves and make themselves ‘at home’. Through this immersive approach, we hope to bring the many unique personal stories within the exhibition to life, enabling visitors to connect their own lives and experiences with those of generations of different people who have built new lives in Britain. We envisage this exhibition as a living, breathing entity. We are planning site-specific theatre performances, cookery demonstrations, artist-led workshops – and even haircuts!

John Downman, The Fourdrinier family of Huguenot refugees, c. 1786 (National Portrait Gallery)

The exhibition is accompanied by a brochure featuring articles by friends and supporters of the MMP, including George Alagiah, Prue Leith, Danny Sriskandarajah and historian Becky Taylor. It uses the framework of the seven or eight rooms of the exhibition as a structural device to explore the experience of migrants down the ages as they adjust to life in a new country – this country. How different was it for Jean Perigal, a 17th-century Huguenot refugee, to make a life for himself here, compared with Dima Karout, a 21st-century artist from Syria? What kind of reception did the 18th-century African James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw experience on docking at Portsmouth, and how different was this from that of Zohreh, who fled the 1978 Iranian revolution to find sanctuary here? And when we talk about economic migrants coming here from other countries, how do we feel about the 2 million British citizens who left the UK in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War to find a better life elsewhere?

Raising, discussing and exploring these kinds of question seems to us more important than ever. Behind them all, of course, lies the overarching question ‘What kind of country do we want to be?’ The MMP would like to be involved in the search for an answer to that question. Would you like to be involved, too?

Room to Breathe runs from 1 November 2018 to Summer 2019 at the Migration Museum, Lambeth, admission free.

To read more from HWO on the history of migration, see:

Virtual Special Issue: Migration and Mobility

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