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‘No Turning Back’: Migration Museum
Image Credit: All That I Am (c) The Singh Twins

‘No Turning Back’: Migration Museum

14 October 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

This new and innovative museum takes the important topic of migration in the UK as its focus. In their new exhibition ‘No Turning Back’, the Migration Museum draws attention to important moments in the history of migrant Britain, asking us to think about what has changed and what has stayed the same in our history.

The Migration Museum is the UK’s first to take migration as its central focus, engaging with both the history of migrancy in the UK, as well as collecting stories and experiences from the general public. Since its creation as an organisation in 2013, the Migration Museum has had a fittingly nomadic past, holding exhibitions in museums and galleries across the UK, including the South Bank and the Hackney Museum.  It is now housed in The Workshop, a temporary arts space in an old fire engine workshop.  The Migration Museum seeks to increase knowledge of how migration has shaped Britain.  They host events and collaborate with artists and academics in order to further thought and conversation in this area and have created a knowledge-sharing network with other museums and institutions in order to highlight the importance of migrancy. Though not an activist organisation, they seek to explore migrancy as a shared narrative.

Before entering the museum proper, the stairs and walls show examples of a previous exhibition, 100 images of migration, which was first displayed in Hackney museum and then toured around the UK.  The material in the exhibition came from a public call out which asked members of the public to send in their images of migration.  The museum encourages this kind of interaction throughout, as a way of highlighting the plurality of migrant experiences. This is also echoed in their ‘story discs’, which hang on a wall just outside the exhibition entrance. These discs are for members of the public to write about their migrant history, and are currently being archived, with the intention to at some point use them for research.

The exhibition itself ‘No Turning Back’ takes the 2016 Brexit referendum as its jumping off point, thinking about moments of uncertainty in migrant history. It’s made up of collaborative installations, personal stories, quotes and photography, all presented non-chronologically, encouraging the viewer to think about the connections between different moments in time. From the mass exodus of the Hugenots in 1685, to 1978’s Rock Against Racism, the exhibition uses seven moments as a way to remind audiences that nothing has really changed.

No Turning Back (c) Migration Museum Project

The exhibition starts with the departure of the boat Hector from Tilbury in 1607, which arrived in Surat in the west coast of India.  Captained by William Hawkins, the boat was one of the first fleets of vessels that became part of the East India Company, the famous company responsible for the global trading and popularisation of tea. The exhibition posits that this marks the advent of globalisation, suggesting links between the physical voyages of the 17th century with the virtual in the 21st.  Similarly, the section on the 1905 Aliens Act demonstrates the endurance of anti-immigrant rhetoric, whether it was Jewish refugees at the end of the 19th century, or Syrian refugees now. One particularly poignant part of the display shows headlines focussed on immigration compiled by Liz Gerad, a journalist for the last four decades. By laying it out on a timeline, Gerad shows how much immigration dominated the headlines in the year of the Brexit vote.

There are also several installations throughout. Shao-Jie Lin’s Postcards from Nowhere is comprised of postcards made from pulped landing cards of those who have been denied entry to the UK.  The artist displays 65 of these cards lined up on the wall, representing the average number of people barred from the UK each day. By recycling these documents and remaking them as postcards, Lin attempts to make this unpleasant experience more visible, asking us to question our sense of location.  Similarly, Angélica Dass’s installation Humanae aims to catalogue every conceivable human skin tone, using the Pantone colours as a way or organising them. She comments that she ‘aim[s] to illustrate that skin and race are more complex than they may appear at first glance.’  Through these installations, the gallery displays the multiple ways of representing not only the migrant experience, but also the effects of the migrant experience on our way of seeing the world.

Humanae (c) Angélica Dass. Photo (c) Juan Miguel Ponce

Andy Barter’s portraits challenge how we represent ‘Britishness’; Barter has photographed mixed-race families, in response to the 2011 census which showed an 85% increase in people describing themselves as mixed or multiple ethnic, since the previous census of 2001. In these portraits, families talk about their experience of growing up ‘mixed’, discussing their relationships to their families and their identity.  In displaying these images, the viewer is challenged to think about how it is we define ourselves and others, and what it means to be British in the 21st Century.

The museum seeks to actively engage with the public so that it gives people the opportunity to talk about their own migrant histories with note cards at the back of the room on which you can write your own migrant moments.  They are also hosting boat-making workshops on October and November 4th at which visitors will be encouraged to make boats that tell stories of arrivals or departures from Britain by sea. Through this collaborative and democratic approach to their museum, they create a welcoming and open gallery space, in which all kinds of stories are represented.   
No Turning Back: Seven Migration Moments that Changed Britain is at the Migration Museum at The Workshop. Free admission.

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