Blog: Why the UK needs a museum to explore migrants’ stories

Published: 23 Sep 2019

Author: Emily Miller
Blog: Why the UK needs a museum to explore migrants’ stories

Immigration consistently ranks as one of the most pressing concerns for voters. There’s been a rise in hate crime since the EU referendum and the ongoing wrangling over Brexit is causing tensions for EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU.

Yet migration is nothing new. The movement of people, ideas and culture to-and-from these shores across the ages is at the heart of who we are – as individuals, as communities and as a nation. Now, more than ever, we need a dynamic cultural space where we can come together to share the experience of migrants, spread knowledge and see the world through other people’s eyes. 

Working with migrants to share their stories

I’m part of the team working to establish the UK’s first Migration Museum. Our aim is to contribute to a calmer, more reasoned exploration of migration, a topic so often front-page news and at the centre of polarised, angry debate, especially in politics and on social media.

Sadiq Khan, school pupils and staff in discussion at the Migration Museum

Students from Harris Westminster Sixth Form meet with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan during his visit to the museum in 2019. They discussed their own migration stories and all agreed on the need for a Migration Museum in London. Photo credit: Ufuk Gky

My Churchill Fellowship in autumn 2019 will allow me to learn from other museums around the world to improve how we share the stories of the UK’s migrants and refine how we explore UK migration stories past, present and future.. I will be visiting museums in Europe in October and the USA in November to see how they gather and present these. 

The story began for me on a visit to the National Museum of History of Immigration in Paris in 2012. “How’s it possible we don’t have our own migration museum in the UK?” I asked myself as I walked away down the steps. “When we do, I want to run their education programme.”

Never before had I sent such a frank statement into the universe. Six years later, I am head of learning and partnerships at the Migration Museum Project in London. After a series of pop-ups in collaboration with a range of institutions (including Southbank Centre, the National Maritime Museum and Leicester train station), in 2017 the Project moved into its own space in The Workshop, a huge former fire engine garage just south of the Thames in Lambeth.

For nearly three years, we’ve been working up our idea to create a new museum through major exhibitions, wide-ranging events and a fast-growing education programme. We’ve worked directly with over 11,000 pupils and university students and trained over 1,500 teachers to date: numbers I’m proud of, but keen to grow. It’s time that every pupil in the UK learnt about the long history of immigration to and emigration from the UK. Gradual changes in the national curriculum, and efforts from other partners, make me hopeful we can achieve this.

The common thread that runs through all of our work is storytelling. Our most recent exhibition, Room to Breathe, is an immersive celebration of 150 first-person accounts of immigration and the high and lows of settling in the UK. These stories are shared in a series of rooms: a bedroom; a kitchen (the animated food stories projected onto the kitchen table are many visitors' favourite); an artist’s studio; a primary school classroom; and a barbershop.

School pupils sit at the kitchen table at the Migration Museum

Primary school pupils enjoying the kitchen table animation installation in Room to Breathe

I feel privileged to speak to people about their migration stories. It’s my favourite part of my job and lets me learn about the world. We find that everybody has a migration story, it just depends how far back into their family history you go. 

How my Churchill Fellowship will let me learn from other migration museums

Now’s the time to learn from other, more established migration museums around the world. My Churchill Fellowship is giving me exactly that opportunity. I’ll travel to four countries which have different positions on migration, identity and pace of change. I’ll visit their migration museums, learn from their stance on these issues and speak to other organisations to discover their approaches to ‘shifting the needle’ on attitudes towards migration.

First, I’ll visit the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp. Here a dynamic conference will bring together migration museums from all over the world which are working to address xenophobia. This gives me a chance to meet people from museums in Brazil and Australia without having to travel all the way there. After Belgium, I’ll travel to France (revisiting the National Museum of History of Immigration in Paris for an in-depth meeting with the team) and Germany. And in November, I head to New York and Washington DC.

I can’t wait to share what I’ve learnt with my colleagues and our board members, to shape the direction of our museum. There’s also an appetite to hear about the successes and challenges of other museums across the national network of migration and museums that I coordinate. The network aims to bring museums and institutions across the UK together to share knowledge and best practice in order to increase and improve work on migration across the UK heritage sector. 

I believe an exchange of ideas between museums across the world can help us to create a new museum that showcases the impact of migration in the UK. Let’s hope the universe is still listening to my pleas.

Migration Museum is holding a family history day on Saturday 2 November. Find out more about the event