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Our Story Worth Telling

The Migration Museum, Lewisham


By Sana Nassari

While the idea of a ‘London museum’ might evoke monumental buildings with great courts and huge white columns, the Migration Museum prefers a vacant retail space next to the H&M inside Lewisham shopping centre. The museum that opts to give voice to ordinary people aptly positions itself amongst those it endorses.

My visit starts from the shopping centre’s interior where two real pieces of the Berlin Wall are displayed, emblazoned with graffiti-style artwork, in which figures look out on those entering the museum, hinting towards a dialogue despite seemingly enforced separation signified by the Wall.

Upon entry, the first artwork I encounter is ‘humanæ’, an in-progress project including 66 out of 4000 images of individual migrants across 20 countries, randomly juxtaposed alongside a few short texts relaying their experiences around race. Seeking to highlight the diversity of colours, the background panel of each portrait is tinted to match the individual’s skin.

Then the tour of 400 years of migration starts. Contradicting what I personally had expected, it was about migration ‘from’ Britain across the globe and not the other way around. To create a more engaging atmosphere, this well-laid-out exhibition employs features of an imaginary air journey such as passport control and signage for boarding, with additional text in every section challenging concepts that seem obvious, such as the ‘good life’ or the ‘passport’ (a relatively new invention which was supposed to help us pass through borders, but which instead became part of the system of boundary control to block passage).

The tour then leads us to a number of artworks made using a variety of media such as audio booths in which visitors can listen to extracts of oral histories from British emigrants, woven archival prints of maps, a wall dedicated to child migrants, a column of closed and open suitcases, portrait photographs, a table of plywood pieces resembling the Rajah Quilt made in 1841 by convict women aboard a ship of that name transporting them to Australia, and an animation room that brings to life old paintings about migration.

One of the most impressive parts of these thought-provoking displays is the reconstruction of a migrant’s house – a kitchen that seems ordinary but suddenly the plates on the table start to show the life of the house’s inhabitants via animation. The exhibition ends here but the narratives continue in our encounter with daily life on the outside of the museum, which echoes the displays on the inside.

It seems that the Migration Museum is experiencing life as a migrant itself. After five years involving a series of short stays in different venues such as the National Maritime Museum, the Museum of Oxford and Leicester railway station, the Migration Museum settled in a former London Fire Brigade premises in Lambeth from 2017 to 2019. It will be in its current location in Lewisham until the end of 2022 and will then hopefully find a permanent home.

With its uniqueness, without any masterpiece on display, without shimmering advertisement, the Migration Museum proves that every migrant’s voice is worth hearing. Now it is our turn to be the voice of this unassuming and humble museum.

Image courtesy of the Migration Museum