Narrating a national migration history: The UK’s Migration Museum Project

The London-based Migration Museum Project was started a few years ago by a group of professionals who were driven by the unfortunate absence of a national institution or museum documenting the “lively part” that migration to and from the UK has played, and continues to play, in national life.

Although at the moment limited to a ‘project’ and comprised mainly of seminars, lectures and education programs, the Migration Museum Project has much grander ambitions. Its intention, explained founder (and former Immigration Minister) Barbara Roach at a recent event, is to create a National Museum of Migration in the UK. Having visited the museum at Ellis Island I’m inclined to agree that such a museum would be extremely valuable. However, the question is what stories (and crucially whose stories) would a British Museum of Migration contain?[1]

The front page of the Migration Museum Project’s website explains that

“The museum will be an enquiry into who we are, where we came from and where we are going. Britons at home and abroad have a shared cultural history and an exciting future. We aim to represent the thrilling tales, the emotion and the history that have gone into shaping our national fabric; we aim to be the museum of all our stories.”

Professor of Sociology Krishan Kumar, building on Halbwachs’ notion of collective memory, has explained that “nations are formed of national memories, of the stories of great men and great deeds”. If this is true what stories are told about ‘our’ history must be considered central to our present and our future as a nation, to who we understand ourselves to be.

But who is the ‘we’ whose history the Museum Project wants to represent? Whose stories are they interested in? In this case the answer is simple enough. The Migration Museum project is explicitly interested in the stories of migrants. These are stories that have traditionally been pushed out of the national history or ignored by more powerful groups and been labelled as ‘foreign’ or ‘other’. By reconstructing the national history with migration at its heart, the Migration Museum Project wants to write those stories (and the people they belong to) into the nation’s history.

The latest Migration Museum Project lectures featured Professor of History, and author of The English and their History, Robert Tombs. In his 45 minute lecture, Tombs offered a varied account of English migration – notably talking about emigration as well as its politicized counterpart immigration.[2] He began by noting the challenge of presenting such a history, emphasizing the fact that England’s migration story began not just decades or even centuries but millennia before the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury.

Central to Tombs account, which focused on the particularities of England’s migration history, was the fact that the country’s multi-ethnicity has grown out of our history and is, in fact, integral to it. People often pay lip service to the fact that Britain is ‘inherently multicultural’ and a ‘mongrel nation’; but how far back does this multi-ethnicity go?

Written in 1984, Staying Power by Peter Fryer, remains a landmark book on the history of Black Britain. In it Fryer documents the history of Black People in Britain and their influence in shaping the nation, not from the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 but from the Roman conquest, emphasising as he does so the presence of Black people in these lands over millennia, not decades. The book documents stories of slavery, performance, racism, music, etc. drawing to a close in the 1980s with a look at the riots and was recently described as an ‘anti-colonial epic’.


HMS The Empire Windrush (from the Imperial War Museum archive)

Thirty years on from Fryers book, the lessons from it have not been learned. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the symbolic significance attached to the Empire Windrush, which is often used to symbolize the dawn of multicultural Britain. Even the BBC, in a Short History of Immigration claims that 22nd June 1948, the day the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, “marked what would become a massive change to British society – the start of mass immigration to the UK and the arrival of different cultures”. That was the day that we are told ‘they’ arrived.

While some, like Geographer Caroline Bressey of University College London, continue to explore and ‘write in’ the stories and historical presence of Black people in Britain, others (and often those with power) continue to marginalise their stories.

The truth is that history is not a neutral telling of the past. It is not only written by the victors, but more generally by the powerful i.e. those with a voice who are able to make themselves heard. The result of this unbalanced writing of history is a national history in which some people – people of colour, women, minorities etc. – have been written out. With their history in these islands and influence on our nation and culture erased, these peoples appear as relative newcomers on ‘our’ soil and their history is positioned as marginal. As author of Black Presence, Phil Gregory puts it: “Eventually we will revert we back to the supposition that Black people are all recent arrivals, invited here by an act of British altruism toward the former colonies”.

An unbalanced or one-sided historical narrative affects not only our history but our present and our future. We rely on history to provide us a coherent present within which we can understand and situate ourselves today, tomorrow and the next day. It is the work of nation to construct a coherent national story, a present capable of uniting us within a social imaginary.[3] However, it is our job as citizens to ensure that that history really does represent us, all of us. And, if it doesn’t, to write that history in, just as the Migration Museum Project aims to do.


Further Reading

Nasar, 30 Years since Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain at

Fryer, P. (1984) Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain

Black Presence in Britain Website

[1] We already have 19 Princelet Street in London of course, which tell the story of a Huguenot house. There are also various pop-ups and exhibitions around but nothing national or concrete.

[2] Previous talks can be listened to here:

[3] Benedict Anderson famously explained nations as “imagined communities”. They exist because significant numbers consider themselves to be national and behave as their nation(s) are ‘real’.

One comment

  1. A timely project for the UK in light of UKIP and white supremist tendencies. Thanks for sharing.


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