London: “Room to Breathe” @ the Migration Museum

The Migration Museum is part of a project that was started in 2013 to help tell the stories of immigrants in Britain (London in particular). They have had an exhibition space in Lambeth since 2017, but I’m sorry to say I hadn’t made it there until now. They bill themselves as “the UK’s first museum dedicated to exploring how the movement of people to and from Britain across the ages has shaped who we are as individuals – and as a nation,” and though I am aware of an earlier immigration museum located at 19 Princelet Street in London, I think they have a point. The Princelet Street Museum is only open to the public one or two days a year, and I’m not even sure if they do that anymore, since their website hasn’t been updated since 2017. Believe me, since I work in a local authority-run museum, I understand all too well the many challenges facing the museum sector these days, but as a volunteer manager, I am also very aware of how many people are out there willing to give their time and effort to help museums function, and I’ve kind of lost patience with museums that almost never open to the public. If the public can’t access it, is it even serving its function as a museum? So I agree that the Migration Museum is the first proper immigration museum that people can actually visit!

The museum’s current home is a warehouse type space not far from the Garden Museum, called The Workshop (equidistant from Vauxhall and Lambeth North) – it also seems to be the future home of the London Fire Brigade Museum, as there were a few small displays set up in the downstairs area whilst we were there including one on the role of the AFS during the Blitz (interesting because I just finished reading Dear Mrs. Bird before my visit (formulaic, and Emmy got on my nerves, but it was still rather sweet) and the main character is a volunteer for the AFS). But since it’s not officially there yet, I’ll just be discussing the Migration Museum, which is located on the first floor of The Workshop, and is free to visit.

The building isn’t in the most attractive part of London (I find Vauxhall in general to feel a little like walking through a giant industrial estate) and the stairwell up to the museum wasn’t particularly promising either, but once we were inside, we were warmly welcomed and given an introduction to the exhibition. The gallery hosts one temporary exhibition at a time, and the current one is called “Room to Breathe” and runs until summer 2019 (their own vague date, not mine). From their website: “Room to Breathe is an immersive experience inviting you to discover stories from generations of new arrivals to Britain. Journey through a series of rooms filled with personal narratives and objects that bring to life the struggles, joys, creativity and resilience of living in a new land.”

You are encouraged to touch and interact with the objects in each room, which is in part set up like a house, with a bedroom followed by a kitchen. So I sat on the bed, petted the stuffed pig, had a look through some family photo albums, opened drawers, and just generally made myself at home. We were the only people in this space, so I really did feel like it was our own private room to explore, and took full advantage (I even discovered an EP of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” in one of the drawers, which made me laugh, though I much prefer the version from the Planet of the Apes Musical). There were stories and experiences of various immigrants written on pieces of cloth hanging from objects throughout the room, and I enjoyed reading them all.

  

I thought the kitchen was great too, as each spice and ingredient on the shelves had someone’s personal story of immigration written on the back, as well as the reason that particular ingredient reminded them of their homeland. There were even some family recipes, and you were invited to write down your own favourite ingredient from home, though I don’t really think doughnuts and frozen custard count as ingredients, so I didn’t write anything. If you sat down at the table, it lit up and told the story of one family through a cartoon projected onto the table, which I thought was really cool. Apparently, they actually host cooking classes in this space (there’s one on Nigerian cooking on 10th April) which is a neat idea.

One of the rooms in here was an artists’ studio that is hosting different artists during the run of the exhibition. I believe Ceyda Oskay was the artist during our visit, though I think she’s only there in person on Sundays to lead craft sessions and various workshops. There was a table set up with watercolours and things where you could presumably make your own art, but there was a group in there at the time of our visit, so we didn’t really get a chance to participate, and instead headed into the school room, where we could read about people’s experiences of coming into the British educational system as immigrants, and the barbershop, where we got to sit in very comfortable barbers’ chairs, and watch someone else do the same on a screen in front of us, as they discussed their family stories of immigration (mine was a guy with a Hungarian mother speaking to his Turkish Cypriot barber).

Because the previously mentioned group was using the cafe and shop space for a conference, we weren’t able to go in to that area, so the last room of our visit was one where we were invited to write the name of someone who helped us when we needed it most on a box, and suspend it from the ceiling. Unfortunately, they were out of boxes, but the ones that were there looked really cool. There was also a board outside where you could write your story of migration, which I wanted to do, but they were out of paper for that too (they might have had more if I’d asked, but I didn’t bother). Also out here was a series of portraits of various immigrants, and I found the story of a woman who came over from the Czech Republic very relatable when she mentioned how even though Czechia was where she came from and she enjoyed going back for visits, because she’d been in Britain for so long, she felt her life was there now, and that was home. So when she goes back to Czechia she visits her family and a few close friends, but she doesn’t feel that she’s really a big part of their lives anymore, because she isn’t there, which is exactly how I feel. My life is very much in London now, and though I enjoy going back to Cleveland for visits, it doesn’t feel like home anymore. I’ve gradually fallen out of touch with all but my closest friends over the years, and I find that I have much more in common with my British friends and colleagues because I see them all the time, and we have the same sort of lifestyles. It can sometimes be hard going back “home” and feeling like you don’t belong there anymore, but that’s part of the immigrant experience, and the woman featured in the exhibition articulated it better than I am.

I know a lot of Americans cling to the expat label, but I have settled here and taken on citizenship – even though I occasionally get in moods where I talk about moving back because I get fed up with the cost of housing and how crowded everything is in London, when it comes down to it, I’m just not very motivated to return to the US. I’d hate to give up all my holiday time, for one thing! I know I’ve had an easier time of it than immigrants from many other countries, thanks to already speaking English (but harder than some due to all the visa processes I had to go through, which I was fine with because of all the other benefits of being in the EU. Sigh), but I do feel like more of an immigrant than an expat (the word expat seems to imply more of a temporary stay, where you don’t really try to interact with the locals, which is definitely not my experience), and I could definitely relate to many of the experiences discussed here. I think this is a wonderful project and a really fun exhibition to visit, and I hope they have luck in finding a permanent home because I think now more than ever, the contributions immigrants have made to Britain need to be recognised and celebrated. I’ll definitely be returning for any future exhibitions. 3.5/5.

I spotted this awesome carving on a building near the museum. I love the cat!

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17 comments

  1. You petting the stuffed pig on the bed looks like a diorama, part of the museum experience. It is a sweet and storybooky scene, and really enchanting. They should hire you as an animatronic figure petting the pig at all hours.

  2. This looks like a really interesting museum. I was also intrigued by your personal experience as an immigrant. I hadn’t realized you became a British citizen. You mentioned being part of the EU. How’s that going to feel after Brexit?

    1. Yes, I became a citizen back in 2016, though I still have American citizenship as well (I talked about it a bit on my blog at the time, but I think it was before we read each other’s blogs). Actually, I’d been eligible for citizenship for a year or two before I got it, and Brexit was one of the things that spurred me on, because I wanted to make sure that I would have a vote the next time around. Obviously I am not happy about Brexit at all, and I think many of us are still vaguely hoping that sense will prevail in the end and Article 50 will be revoked, though we’re fast running out of time. The whole thing’s been a fiasco!

  3. Thanks very much for sharing, the museum looks really interesting. I had no idea it existed, but I’m in London next month and will see if my friends fancy visiting.

  4. This looks like a terrific exhibit. Seems like the designers used a really clever mix of low tech and high tech to make it hands-on and immersive. Wish I was going to be visiting soon. I’m always fascinated with connections between food and culture, and the spice exhibit sounds fascinating. Plus, anything that encourages folks to look at immigrants and immigration in a positive light is a good thing. All this anti-immigrant political crap is scary and disheartening. It’s horrible here. I’m guessing it’s bad there as well?

    1. I would say that the mainstream rhetoric isn’t quite as toxic as in the US, but it’s certainly bad enough that it played (I think) a fairly major role in the Brexit vote. It’s bad enough here, but it really makes no sense to be anti-immigration in the US since basically everyone there is a recent immigrant by European standards except Native Americans.

  5. I have to admit, this place sounds and looks a whole lot jollier than I would have imagined it’d be. And what a treat that it’s so interactive. I love how the idea of “home” and common household items help you connect with the experiences of others. Makes it much more personal.
    That ingredient log is such a clever idea. Personally, I would have supported your doughnut and frozen custard entries. Myself, I’d probably have to go with maple syrup – though it’s not really an ingredient either. I think of it as more of a topping really. But I do always put a bit in my salad dressings to balance the vinegar – so, yes?
    That carving at the end is incredible. That cat looks fat enough to be Tammy 🙂 Makes me wish (not for the first time) that our buildings here invested in similar fun details.
    Also, I love your great “great coat.”

    1. I do love maple syrup, dare I say almost as much as a Canadian? I like it on buttermilk biscuits instead of the more usual honey (it’s runnier, so it really gets into the fluffy biscuit insides), and I have been known to use it as a condiment for fries and onion rings.
      It is a sweet fat Tammy cat. We’ve been looking a bit at properties (very disheartening) and there was a fat cat inside the one we viewed yesterday, which we both agreed was the best thing about the place by far.
      Thank you!!! It’s a J Peterman. I’ve been dying for someone to compliment my coat so I could say that, but everyone who has doesn’t get the reference.

      1. On fries and onion rings?! This is mighty impressive. I think this might actually qualify you for an Honourary Canadian citizenship. I’ll start the paperwork immediately.
        I’m sorry to hear your property search has been disheartening. But how exciting to be looking! I’m sure something good, that feels right, will turn up soon. And with luck, there’ll be a furry tub somewhere about 🙂
        Ha! J. Peterman?! That’s so cool. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actual piece before. It’s beautiful. And how can no one get the reference? Is Seinfeld not that big a thing there?

      2. Thank you, I might need it when/if Brexit goes ahead.
        Seinfeld was never really on TV here, so no one knows it. I was stalking that coat for months before I bought it – it was originally $600, but I got it during a 70% off sale. It is a cashmere-wool blend, so it’s like two Seinfeld references in one. “I didn’t want the change, Georgie, I wanted the cashmere.”

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