By Shrima Pandey and Lara Ertener
London would not be the diverse, successful and open city it is without the many migrants who call it home. A permanent museum celebrating the history of migration would help to ensure people of all ages and backgrounds appreciate both the struggle and triumph experienced by migrant communities moving here. Sadiq Khan
The Migration Museum Project (MMP), based in London, is the first nation-wide endeavour to capture and present “the British migration story” in the form of a major national museum. Since 2013, the trustees and staff – including former politicians, lawyers, and artists – have held temporary pop-up exhibitions, workshops, and talks pertaining to the theme of “migration,” specifically as it relates to Britain. Their efforts have received significant attention as well as prominent support and the museum has grown significantly in the past two years. The MMP hopes that their museum serves as a tool for national social cohesion. Building a large-scale museum from the ground up is expensive, though, and public benefit doesn’t come for free. What compromises does the MMP have to make in order to fulfill their mission? Increasingly heritage and cultural institutions partner or receive funds from corporate sponsors who might not work for the public and might even be harmful.
In 2017, the MMP secured their first long-term, but still temporary, gallery in The Workshop. The Workshop is a shared building in Lambeth, part of a larger regeneration project by property developers U+I. Within a year, they reinstalled exhibitions that had been on display at other sites and debuted “No Turning Back: Seven Migration Moments That Changed Britain.” Although still temporary, the new Migration Museum at the Workshop was an important showcase and forum for the museum to prove to potential funders and the public that the MMP deserves a permanent home and funding.
Their efforts may have paid off. A space for the Migration Museum Project to continue their goal to create “a moving and inspiring institution that puts Britain’s important migration story at the forefront of our national consciousness” might be available as early as 2022. In January 2018, international real estate property managers, Greystar, announced that they hope to build a multi-storey complex in Southwark, London, near London Bridge. The building would house the MMP on the ground floor and luxury student accommodation above. The planning application was submitted in April 2018 and is still awaiting approval by the Southwark Council although considering that previous plans in that site had been approved, Greystar hopes to convince the council of its expanded scheme through the project’s increased “public benefit.” The addition of the Migration Museum into this plan suggest that the Migration Museum serves a benefit to the public.
It is important to question the meaning behind “public benefit,” particularly as regeneration projects and corporate developers continue to come under fire for gentrification and displacement. Like most heritage institutions in the UK, the MMP is a registered charity, a legal status awarded only if the organisation works for the “public benefit”. This seems to be what property developers rely on – the inherent “goodness” of charities and thus of museums – in order to secure their permits, secure their building, and secure their profit, regardless of the impact of the development. But who is the public and what is the benefit? Can it be assumed that heritage institutions are inherently beneficial to a general public? And, perhaps most importantly, can institutions that benefit the public also harm the public in the same breath?
Historically, museums have served to create a unified national citizenry, and several scholars argue that they are sites of privilege and power. In the past, museums created narratives to educate citizens about who they are – often through showing them who they are superior to. Even today, museums create a public by establishing an ‘other.’ Issues such as the physical and intellectual access to museums and the ability to be more than a passive recipient of knowledge also influences the exclusiveness of the often elitist institutions. Museums have often been places where the narratives of “us and them” are communicated and internalized.
With the emergence of new museology, a whole discipline is dedicated to addressing this problem and using museums’ powerful public position to be an agent of social change. More curators and museum practitioners urge for more reflection, community outreach, participatory programmes, and collections are increasingly revisited and questioned. These efforts have varying degrees of success and implementation. Many are making great strides in museum and heritage spaces; however, museums need to actively work to implement more inclusive practices and not passively assume their work can do no harm.
The MMP sees itself a part of this movement of new museology. The MMP envisions their museum creating social harmony throughout the nation, dissolving tensions in society by being a platform for “more reasoned” discussion. They hope to create this link among people of/in Britain by suggesting “we are all migrants, it just depends how far back you go.”
The MMP certainly has a strong education program and hosts a number of events with the “community.” Who is this community? Who embodies the “we” in all of their messaging?
In their 2016 brochure, the MMP wrote that they are actively targeting the “anxious middle” in Britain. Where does that leave the migrant communities? Are they considered part of the audience by default because the museum is about them? If the key audience are those who need to become more tolerant neighbors or be convinced that migration is not a threat, then is the migration museum truly for migrant communities? This migration museum seems to be less about representation and more about communicating the “other” to a (presumably hostile) “native”:
We can humanise migrants by sharing their stories, transforming ‘others’ into more-familiar neighbours. Migration Museum Project
The MMP’s mission, it appears, talks about people more than with people. Shiny new South London developments with “public benefit” spaces are not much different. Firstly, which “public” does the MMP as a public benefit address? How will the local migrant and BAME community in Southwark be impacted by their relationship with the developers, Greystar? Looking back at the tenets of new museology, even if the MMP were successfully wholly representational, accessible, and participatory, the relationships through which this institution become a player in the cultural landscape also matter. Is it not hypocritical for a museum to create ties with systems that continue to disenfranchise the very people that museums claim to represent and support?
Southwark, where the proposed development called “Capital House” aims to go up, is no stranger to new buildings and regeneration. Under the same council, the Aylsebury Estate – made up of many black and ethnic minority residents – was demolished in 2005 in order to make modern houses controlled by a housing association, with some social housing remaining. “What’s going on here is effectively social cleansing to make London a nice ‘clean’ place for the rich,” said one protester who occupied a portion of the estate in 2017. Nearby Heygate Estate faced a worse fate. The “Capital House” development is not directly displacing residents (as the current lot is empty) but instead of prioritizing the local community, they are building something for which there is no need — luxury student accommodation. We know that student accommodation is overabundant in London, despite what developers claim, and in fact the “studentification” of the city contributes to increased rents and gentrification.
Is the Migration Museum more of a public benefit than if there was no Greystar building at all and instead there was more affordable housing? Simply adding a heritage institution or a charity to a project does not automatically enhance its effect on the surrounding community. It is misleading to assume that museums are always inherently positive for the entire local community. The “public” is not homogenous and different localities have different needs.
The MMP is still a work in progress and their measurable impact on the public needs to be further explored (especially in terms of how this could be measured). In the MMP’s future home, they would have more resources, a larger staff, and perhaps more programming – all things they hope will come with a permanent space. Still – even if the museum becomes very participatory and representative, accepted by the communities they want to represent, is it justified to go into business with a corporate developer whose work often stands in contrast to the museum’s mission and values?
Shrima and Lara were both volunteers at the Migration Museum from May – August 2017.
Shrima Pandey has an MA in Migration Studies from the University of Sussex and a BA in Anthropology from Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, PA. She has experience teaching and mentoring refugee youth in Greece, leading workshops for students in Nepal, and supporting immigrants in NYC. Her research and professional interests are in urban inequity, youth and civic engagement, and storytelling for social change. She spends her time organizing against gentrification in Queens. Shrima considers herself an immigrant, a New Yorker, and Nepali.
Lara Ertener has an MA in Migration and Diaspora Studies from SOAS, University of London and a BA in Political Science and Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Münster, Germany. She has worked with the Documentation Centre and Museum of Migration in Germany as well as for their Virtual Migration Museum and has experience working with refugee support organisations in Cologne and Berlin. Her research interests within the field of migration are cultural and political representation and participation, heritage and education.