Getting lost inside the Immigration Museum


Who are you? I am asked at the end of the tour of the only immigration museum in Europe. Normally the answer would come automatically, depending on who I'm talking to; I am a Zimbabwean, a journalist, a student. But standing in a freezing cold 17th Century silk weaver's house in the E

ast End of London I’m no longer certain that there’s a straightforward answer to the question of identity. The house, built in 1719, is a significant place to have a museum of immigration. Since the early 17th Century, along with the surrounding area of Brick Lane and Spitalfields, it has been home to immigrants fleeing from their countries to seek a better life in London. Many different immigrant groups have made their home in the East End of London, from Jews fleeing Europe in the early 20th Century to Bangladeshi economic migrants in the 50s and 60s and most recently Somalis and even Zimbabweans. The museum’s exhibition aptly named Suitcases and Sanctuary, was put on display in 2001 and made by children from local schools, many of whom are immigrants themselves. The first part of the exhibition located inside a rare surviving Jewish synagogue that was built over the garden in 1869. Old suitcases lie open around the room containing letters, pictures and a diary in which the children had to imagine that they were immigrants moving into the area after fleeing their countries. Apart from reading the letters, visitors can listen to poems recited by children through old telephone handsets or watch predominantly Muslim children act out a Jewish folk tale on a television set in the kitchen. Many people have visited the museum, which is only open to the public 15 days a year due to the fact that the house is still in its original condition and needs extensive restoration work to keep it from collapsing. On the days when it is open, people queue for up to two hours to view the house and the exhibition. Visitors to the museum have included Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga who looked around the museum and spoke to the children and staff about his experiences as an immigrant from Zimbabwe. Part of the exhibition encourages guests to think what they would take with them if they had to suddenly leave their homes. “Henry was quite struck by this,” said Susie Symes the museum’s Chair of trustees, “he actually got quite upset. When I asked him why he went on to explain what he had to pack when he left Zimbabwe in a hurry. That really brought his situation home to us. It is so powerful when guests share their stories with us; it’s part of what makes this such a special place.” The house is run by a charity and the volunteers who work there see the museum as a place of stories where people can be educated about immigration and the rich diversity of the area around them. Britain has traditionally given immigrants and refugees asylum, but in a time when political and economic hardships in countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, Afghanistan and Iraq have forced people to seek sanctuary in other countries, refugees are often viewed with contempt and suspicion. This is not just true of Britain, in Zimbabwe; descendents of economic migrants from Malawi find it difficult to obtain Zimbabwean citizenship even if they have never even been to Malawi. The exhibition encourages people to think about the question of immigration, they are encouraged to consider how it must feel to have to leave behind your home to make a new life in a strange country with a different culture. Susie feels that the exhibition is so powerful because it was put together by children who “have a willingness and an innocence to see things from a different point of view. This was never meant to be a permanent exhibition until adults came and we saw the power of it and the effect it had on them,” she said. At the end of the exhibition guests are asked to consider how they define themselves. They are encouraged to think about their ancestors and where they come from. Many people living in Britain today who consider themselves British, are descendents from the Romans who invaded Britain thousands of years ago in 44 BC or Huguenot Jews who fled France in the 17th Century. In years to come descendents of migrants from Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Somalia and even Zimbabwe may consider themselves British as well. It’s a lesson that could be applied to any country in the world. Susie said: “After seeing this exhibition what many people realise is that all of us are either immigrants or descended from immigrants, it just depends how far back you look.”

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