A visit to the Museum of Immigration and Diversity, 19 Princelet Street

mainview As part of a course I have been teaching this year on Ethnicity and Immigration in Britain and France at the University of York, some of my students and I recently visited the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street – an intriguing ‘site of conscience’ in the heart of London’s East End. One of my students, Thomas Blampied, has been kind enough to write a guest-blog, or perhaps guest-reflection would be a better word, on our experience there:

The Museum in Your Mind

Every time I visit London, I am awed and overwhelmed by the sheer size and dynamism of the global metropolis.  One of the most wonderful things about London is finding new and interesting things in the most unlikely of places.  Princelet Street is one of these places.

Just one stop east of Liverpool Street on the Tube is a slightly grubby and crowded community of shops and houses focused around Brick Lane in Spitalfields.  For centuries this area grew outside the exclusive boundaries of the City with each successive wave of immigration that came to settle in London.  Huguenots, Irish, Eastern European Jews and now Bangladeshis have all called this area home.  To walk down the streets crowded with a mosaic of people is a pleasure for the senses as different architectural styles, smells of food, styles of dress and manners of behaviour greet you at every turn.

Of course, none of this cultural immersion came as a surprise to me.  As a Canadian studying in Britain, a sense of multiculturalism had been drummed into me from my earliest school days in Canada.  A land of diversity and acceptance may be the Canada’s global brand, but it only works by oppressing native people and having foreign PhDs driving taxis.  I felt a little guilty walking down Brick Lane, camera in hand, the visiting photographer intruding on people’s lives.  Despite my interest in the ambience, that wasn’t the real reason I was there.

I was there to visit 19 Princelet Street, a museum of immigration and diversity tucked in the middle of this rainbow of culture.  Lined with Georgian Terraces, Princelet Street could be anywhere in London, but this particular street was home to London’s first Yiddish theatre and was the birthplace of Miriam Moses, the first female mayor of Stepney (so the blue plaque at number 17 informed me).  The museum itself is housed in a disused synagogue, complete with gallery and stained glass ceiling.

I didn’t really know what to expect in the museum.  I suppose I had expected a collection of artefacts narrating the history of immigration in the East End, but that isn’t what 19 Princelet Street is about.  Instead, it is a museum in your mind.

Spread across three floors, small displays of objects tell the story of displacement and new beginnings through the eyes of modern schoolchildren.  How better to explain these themes to the next generation than by making them feel them?  A cursory glance might brand this museum “arty,” but a closer look will make you confront not only the immigrant experience, but your own opinions too.  See how straightforward children make such supposedly complex issues as persecution or famine as they write letters from the point of view of refugees past and present.  Strip away the complexity which clouds adult judgement and you are left with bare human emotions: fear, sadness, hope.  It is hope that compels generation of newcomers to forge new lives in new lands.

There are several places in the museum where you are forced to consider your own thoughts.  The volunteer guides will ask you to fill out a small tag, listing what you would put in a suitcase if you were forced to leave home forever.  This request is met mostly with awkward laughter and assessing how many mobile phones one could fit in a bag.  After some thought, my tag read: “I would take my camera, as many books as I could carry and my ideas.”  Not really practical, but to me hope is kindled by thought and creative expression.

Upstairs, an art installation takes a critical stab at the myth of “Cool Britannia” by covering a Union Jack cushion with pins – a metaphor for immigrants trying to make a new life in Britain.  Later, you are invited to try and match opinions regarding asylum seekers with photos of people in an attempt to identify who said what.  Some people see it as a game, others feel it enforces stereotypes.  I think I see what it really says: it forces you to confront the snap judgements we all make when interacting with other people.  Psychologists would see this as how we determine the best way to interact with other people.  It doesn’t make you a bad person, but it is important to realise that we do judge and to confront our prejudices.

My visit over, I reflected on what it all meant.  People often describe 19 Princelet Street as feeling “like home” and I agree.  I have two passports, two identities and don’t feel fully at home with either one.  To walk into this museum of the mind and realise that other people are searching too is a comforting thought – and one I can take wherever I may go.

– Thomas Blampied

(via Emily Manktelow)

Thomas’s website, including links to his publications, can be found here: thomasblampied.blogspot.ca

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