Showmi Das performs at Ugandan Asians: A Living History community event at the Migration Museum. Image: Elzbieta Piekacz/Migration Museum
The ongoing row over the government’s Illegal Immigration Bill has generated a lot of headlines but precious little reflection. How well do we understand our history of migration, and the country’s treatment of those coming to these shores? A museum dedicated to that story might have the answer.
Over the last decade the UK’s Migration Museum has been bounced between temporary homes. But now it has found a – perhaps unlikely – saviour: a property developer willing to give it a home in central London for the next six decades.
Its exhibitions, including explorations of how migration has contributed to the NHS and to British business, currently sit in a shopping centre in Lewisham, south London. As the team behind the museum sought to create a space for people from all backgrounds to share stories and understand their experience, precarity loomed.
“Migration is a pressing contemporary issue, the subject of heated and polarising political debate and so often hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons,”Matthew Plowright, the museum’s director of communications and engagement told The Big Issue. “But it is not a new story. There’s an underlying history of comings and goings from these shores stretching back thousands of years.
“And we all have a connection to this story – after all, if you peel back the layers of anyone’s family history, you’ll find stories of departure, arrival – or both.“
Alongside exhibitions, the museum hosts events to bring history to life, such as dance events for Ugandan Asians, or book readings from authors with stories to tell.
A property development firm founded by Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia, who came to the UK as a child fleeing from Idi Amin’s Ugandan regime, has given the museum a permanent home near Fenchurch Street, in the City of London – free of service charge or rent for the next 60 years.
“Our aim has always been to establish a landmark, permanent Migration Museum for Britain to put Britain’s migration story at centre stage, at the heart of our national narratives and cultural conversations – where it belongs,” said Plowright.
“Repeated movement and uncertainty makes it extremely difficult to build sustainable teams and partnerships, or to plan ahead with certainty,” he added.
“Every time we move, it requires a significant amount of time, energy and resources.”
The space, at the bottom of a purpose-built student accommodation, would net the developers Dominus hundreds of thousands of pounds a year if it was turned into, say, an office, Jay Ahluwalia, son of Sukhpal and a director of the business, told The Big Issue.
He speaks of a vision for the museum – one to be held to: “Our commitment is, I suppose, firstly, not to make a profit from that space in any way. And the way that’s secured through planning conditions is a space of 60 years rent and service charge free, along with a commitment from the business for a lot of in-kind support.”
It comes amid deep difficulty for museums and arts funding more widely. Big national museums struggle with the ethics of accepting donations from controversial sources such as BP and the Sackler family. The new home for the migration museum offers a potential model for how cultural spaces might navigate this – businesses with an eye on social responsibility.
There is, of course, a reputational benefit for a property developer offering a museum a space in a multi-million pound development.
“I’m really conscious of it,” said Ahluwalia. “I think developers and our industry in general, there is a stereotype there and I understand it.”
“Development can be done differently,” he added, saying there was space for developers “to kind of draw a link between the profits that scheme will deliver and the long term provision of public benefit,”
“In the last few years, the story of migration has become quite politicised. I can’t help but think that there’s so much good and positivity that these people do actually add to the UK,” Ahluwalia said.
The museum won’t move until 2025/26 as the space is not built yet. The new home will allow for not just bigger and better exhibitions, but more visits from schools and universities, as well as diversity training for firms in the City.
“Our permanent museum will enable us to stage regularly changing temporary exhibitions alongside a permanent exhibition exploring the long history of movement of people to and from these shores and the many ways in which this has shaped who we are today individually and collectively,” said Plowright.