Britain’s only museum of migration reopens on Saturday 9 April at premises in the heart of Lewisham shopping centre.
Set up to explore how the movement of people both to and from Britain down the ages has shaped individuals, communities and the nation as a whole, the Migration Museum stages exhibitions and events, and has an education programme for primary, secondary, university and adult learners. It also convenes a knowledge-sharing Migration Network of museums and galleries across the UK.
The weekend reopening comes after refitting for a new exhibition, ‘Taking Care of Business’, which aims to shine a light on the central role that migrant entrepreneurs have played in Britain through personal stories, immersive art installations, and a concept shop featuring migrant-led businesses and creators.
The museum also offers an online exhibition, Heart of the Nation: Migration and the Making of the NHS, which puts the international workers who have come to the UK at the centre of the NHS story through oral histories and archival materials, as well as art, animations and data visualisations.
Although the main focus is on migration to the UK, the museum also tells the stories of those who left the British Isles, pointing out that ‘some 75 million people across the world self-identify as having British ancestry, greater than the population of the UK itself’. The Departures exhibition has now closed, but photographs and resources can still be found online.
The Migration Museum was founded by Barbara Roche, Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green from 2002-2005 and Minister for Migration, from 1999-2001, in the first Tony Blair government.
Perhaps fittingly, it has had a peripatetic existence, starting life in 2013 running pop-up events and education workshops. In 2017, it found a base in a former London Fire Brigade workshop in Lambeth, moving again in 2020 to its current location in south London where it plans to stay at least until the end of 2023. Longer term, the Migration Museum hopes to find a permanent home.
Speaking about her inspiration for the museum, Barbara Roche says: ‘As a youngster from a Jewish background growing up in east London, I wanted to know how my story fitted into the national picture. Like many others, I came to understand that my family history reflected the way generation after generation of people have moved to and from Britain over the centuries. In fact, even though I thought that I knew my own family’s history, a cousin of mine recently made the tragic discovery that there are branches of my family on the Sephardi side who were murdered in concentration camps during the Holocaust.’
She says: ‘Although the Covid-19 pandemic has limited our ability to welcome visitors for much of the past year, being based in the middle of a busy shopping centre has enabled us to reach and engage audiences of all ages and backgrounds on a previously unimaginable scale.
‘But more than the sheer number of visitors, what has struck me is just how many people who walk through our doors are deeply and personally engaged. Reading the personal stories and reflections shared by visitors and experiencing first-hand how much it means to people from all backgrounds to have a platform to share their stories and to see aspects of their experiences reflected in our exhibitions and outputs makes all of our hard work over the years worth it.’