Migration Museum opens in the heart of busy London shopping centre
Yosola Olorunshola , 13.02.2020
Q&A with Emily Miller, head of learning and partnerships
The Migration Museum opens on 14 February in a new home in Lewisham Shopping Centre, after a two-and-a-half-year residency in Lambeth.
It will stage a series of exhibitions, events and education workshops that revive some highlights of its previous programme, including the immersive exhibition Room to Breathe and Humanae, a participatory project by artist Angélica Dass documenting every human skin tone. It will also launch a major new exhibition, Departures, exploring 400 years of emigration stories from Britain to coincide with the anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower.
Ahead of its opening, we spoke to Emily Miller, head of learning and partnerships at the Migration Museum, to find out more about the museum’s future.
Why is a Migration Museum important at this point in time?
Migration is a pressing contemporary issue. It's at the centre of polarised political debates about national identity and our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. But immigration is far from a modern phenomenon.
There’s an underlying story of comings and goings from Britain stretching back many centuries. And this story goes to the heart of who we are today. There is a clear gap in our cultural landscape. Countries from Australia to the US, Brazil to Germany have popular migration museums that provide spaces for exploration and discussion away from the anger and division often found in politics, the media and online.
Our sector is always working to ensure that our venues, collections and programming are accessible and relevant to all. We believe that the time is right for a highly relevant, accessible visitor attraction that goes to the heart of who we are – as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.
What are you excited about in terms of the new location?
This is such an exciting next chapter for us. Our new home is almost three times the size of our previous venue in Lambeth and allows us to stage multiple exhibitions. Lewisham is one of London’s most dynamic and diverse boroughs and has a thriving community and cultural sector. We’ve been overwhelmed by the incredibly warm welcome we’ve received from the borough, the council, local organisations and residents. We can’t wait to open our doors.
Being based right in the middle of a busy shopping centre – in a former H&M, opposite Starbucks and next door to TK Maxx – gives us an opportunity to reach a much larger audience than ever before, and tackle barriers to engagement. As a new, non-traditional museum, being based in a non-traditional space feels fitting.
Can you tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced in bringing the museum to life?
Being part of a museum start-up is certainly never dull! It involves a lot of tenacity and resilience.
I’ve been involved since 2013 when the project first received funding to get started. Funding is an ongoing issue for us - consistent with challenges across our sector. We do have some very loyal donors without whom we could not exist, but much of the funding we get is on a project-by-project basis. This makes forward planning and staffing tricky. On a policy level, funding can be especially difficult to access for new museums.
We are about to open in our second temporary home. Before that we staged pop-ups with a number of other institutions. Having our own space since 2017 has been transformative for us as a project. But moving from temporary home to temporary home comes with huge costs: both financial and institutional. When we move, we lose some of the relationships and audiences we have built up and have to start all over again in a new place.
However, despite all these challenges it is an exciting time for us and our team is bigger and stronger than ever: galvanised by this next chapter and all the opportunities it brings.
How will you connect with migration stories outside London?
While we aim to have our permanent home in London, migration is and always has been a truly national story. We can’t hope to tell migration stories from other parts of the UK in the ways that local institutions in those places can. Also, we need to learn from them to develop our work. People from a range of institutions regularly approach us for advice and support when planning migration-themed content. It is for all these reasons that we coordinate the Network of Migration and Museums.
We ran a pilot of this in 2016-2017 and we're now planning six regional events across Britain in 2020 and 2021. These learning events will share knowledge and best practice with the aim of empowering our sector to engage confidently with migration themes. We hope that the events will create connections and collaborations beyond our sector too - we invite anyone interested in participating in the network to contact us.
What have you learned from other migration museums around the world?
In October last year, I had the opportunity to learn from other migration museums across the world thanks to a fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. My fellowship kicked off with a convening of the International Network of Migration Museums in Belgium. It was fantastic to meet with people from organisations on the same journey as us, including our friends from the Migration Museum in Adelaide, Australia, to whom many tweets intended for us get sent – we're @MigrationUK in case you were wondering!
I then went on to make more in-depth visits to museums working on immigration, emigration and related themes across Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany and the USA. It was invaluable to have the opportunity to step back from life in a fast-paced organisation and reflect. I picked up ideas and advice from those further along their journeys and finished each meeting with the same question: “What would you do or not do if you were in our position?”
I got some great responses that we are working to implement in this next chapter... Come and check us out and give us your own answers to this question!
Image: Migration Museum