Last August, in London, Anna interviewed Sophie Henderson, Head of the Migration Museum Project.
We would like to thanks Sophie for her generosity in sharing her viewpoints, and for the wonderful work done by the Migration Museum Project up to now.
Where are you, now, with the Migration Museum Project? What are its main objectives?
We want to have a physical museum in a permanent space, so we have been doing things in an experimental way over the last three years, just to see what is popular, what people like, what works. We are sort of ‘testing the water’, publicizing the project and developing content for what might go in the museum eventually. So far we have designed four exhibitions on our own account and two in collaboration with major institutions.
We don’t have a permanent collection: we put on exhibitions, we put on events and we work on education. These are the three main axes of our work.
As for the location, we have envisaged various possibilities. First, we considered the idea of a mobile ‘migrating’ museum made out of shipping containers. We loved that idea but in the end we decided that it was unlikely to be economically viable. In order to be sustainable, and to give the topic the stature and prominence it deserves, we have made a decision that we require a physical space in London. London is for many reasons the right place for our permanent home; but having said that, we want the museum to have a national presence since migration, both to and from the UK over hundreds of years, is a truly national story, and there are extraordinary collections in museums all over the country that touch on this issue. We would like to be able to help bring out the contemporary migration relevance of these collections, and to that end we will be developing a Migration Museum Network. We have not decided exactly what form this will take, but we should like to be able to play an enabling role if we can and we will be developing this idea over the coming months and years in partnership with various institutions.
Many museums in London deal with the theme of migration (the Museum of London, Hackney Museum, the Jewish Museum, 19 Princelet Street, etc.). But we believe that we should have a museum that is specifically dedicated to the topic of migration, because it has become the issue of the day; it is what preoccupies people on a daily basis and many people don’t quite know what they think about it. We think that a cultural institution, where people can reflect on their attitudes to this most important topic in an atmosphere of calm and authority, is really called for. So I think that there is a strong case to me made for having a permanent Migration Museum, as well as other institutions that weave the subject of migration into their collections.
Do you think that the methodology you have developed and the viewpoint you have adopted could constitute the basis for the museum?
Yes, I think that we have learned a lot from what we have done already, though some things have worked better than others. We developed our first output –100 images of migration – in the way that we did, because it was achievable, affordable and simple. At that time we had no funding whatsoever, or very little for a tiny website, so we simply invited members of the public to send us images about migration. It was kind of ‘cheap’, you know, but it turned into something quite interesting, it touched people, and it was taken up by Hackney Museum, which put it on as our first exhibition. That exhibition has now travelled all over the place, and in each new location it becomes something different. When it went to Leicester School of Museum Studies it was displayed in public spaces, such as the railway station, and around the campus, which was quite an exciting development for us. In other locations, it has a topical or a local relevance.
We have learned, I suppose, that there is an endless appetite for, and interest in, migration and that if you scratch the surface, everybody has some sort of migration story and people like to contribute, and have wanted to be a part of this exhibition. So we have learned that it is a potent accessible idea to invite user-generated content like in 100 Images of Migration and in another of our exhibitions called Keepsakes. We would like this accessibility and participation to be central to our concept.
If you had to sum up the idea of what the museum should be, how would you describe it?
Nothing is yet set in stone, as we are still learning and developing our ideas. But I would say it must be vibrant, living, relevant, engaging and entertaining – and not necessarily attached to traditional notions of museum storytelling. We should like to experiment with different methods of interpretation. The museum should be provocative, and not seek to deliver any particular ‘message’ because we think that is not very interesting, and can be patronizing. We should aim to be asking questions rather than answering them, and inviting people to come to their own conclusions. We think that we should represent a range of viewpoints, and aim to provoke responses in interesting ways so that people really engage.
Are you going to choose a historical perspective, or rather focus on recent immigration?
Yes, we will most definitely place current migration within its historical context, both of the long story of immigration into Britain, and also of the story of emigration, even though this may be less easy to display and bring to life. Britain probably has one of the biggest emigration stories in the world, and examining this helps us to put the notion of immigration into perspective. All immigrants set out as emigrants, but the connotations attached to these words are very different: the emigrant is somehow a brave, romantic and courageous figure, and the immigrant is annoying, takes up all the resources etc., so I think it is important to show that these are two sides of the same coin.
In last year’s exhibition Adopting Britain, curated by Southbank Centre and Counterpoints arts, where the Migration Museum Project was one of the partners, I appreciated the space given to artists (I refer in particular to Barby Asante’s work with unaccompanied minors). Speaking more generally, what would be the role of contemporary artists in your project?
Well, again, we don’t yet have a building, and still less do we have an interpretative plan, so it’s too early to answer your question. But surely artists have a really important role to play. In our recent exhibition, Call me by my name, that looked at the current refugee crisis with particular reference to the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais, art was a very important feature, it really added something.
When you first came in to the exhibition, there was an installation called The Wanderers by an artist called Nikolaj Larsen – it looked rather like a huge version of the Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin – and it represented 320 nameless figures on a long plinth. It was an arresting and provocative piece, and reflected the idea that, as you progressed through the exhibition, you went on a journey from anonymity to the humanity of individual speople, which slowly emerged. You ended up at the end of the exhibition in a recreation of part of the Calais camp itself, along with a very vibrant sense of the individuality of the camp inhabitants themselves, including through their own artworks. This showed audiences not how we look at them, but how the express themselves in their own words. So the art, both by professional artists and by camp residents, many of whom were amateurs, was a very important part of the exhibition, and worked well within a multimedia context. Some of the art in the last room was breathtaking, beautiful, inspiring – and very much told the story of the kind of spirit emanating from the camp, which is a story that gets lost in much of the media portrayals.
How did you do research for the exhibition? Did you work directly in the camp?
Our curators, Sue McAlpine and Aditi Anand, visited the camp several times and spoke with organizations involved in artistic projects there. There are so many things going on: there is a theatre, a bookshop, a photography project… So we displayed some of the works created by those projects. We also researched through word of mouth, and got to know some of the people in the camp who produce art: and the result was amazing – for me this was almost the best part of the show.
I guess you were under a spotlight during all the political process that led to Brexit (you published a guest blog by Colin Yeo about it). Do you feel the duty to say something in this peculiar moment, do you feel the urgency to respond to Brexit or to address the opinion? Do you feel that you have a social or political role to play in that respect and more generally? Do you consider yourselves as activists?
Talking about Brexit, we actually published a guest blog, with our usual disclaimer, saying that any views stated are those of the author and not necessarily our own: in fact, I think it is important to underline that we are a cultural organization, and not a political one. Of course migration is an inherently political topic, and it is very difficult to do or say anything without a perceived political slant, but it would be a very bad idea if we were, or were seen to be, promoting any sort of political agenda. Besides that, we are aware that migration is a very, very complex topic and we are simply not equipped to play the role of commentator on matters like Brexit. There are a number of very different – and legitimate – points of view and our role ought to be about helping people to make up their own minds.
I think that if people think you have an agenda, that is likely to be self-defeating because people rightly question your objectivity. Having said that, the Brexit vote does seem to demonstrate that we need to have a more considered national conversation about migration, and I feel that a cultural institution, with an emphasis on historical understanding can play a role in bringing people together.
Who are your interlocutors in terms of financial support, help in finding a location, advocating for the project, etc.?
Loads of people! We have everything to learn, so we are constantly seeking opinions, doing things in partnership, listening to others. For the physical space we are talking to property developers, local authorities and so on, and we are beginning to focus on this more. We feel we have largely made the case for a Migration Museum, and now it is time to concentrate on finding a physical site. Our interlocutors are really a wide range of people. In terms of designing the exhibitions, for example, we have worked with Southbank Centre, Counterpoints Arts, and the National Maritime Museum amongst others. We have advisors from the academic field, and a recent partnership with COMPAS at Oxford University, and the Open University in relation to our exhibition about Calais. We have a long list of distinguished friends who support us in various ways, including many from the field of museums, including people like Dr Cathy Ross, who was Head of Collections at the Museum of London.
How could the Migration Museum Project fit into the agenda of the new Mayor of London? It seems like he could be the perfect listener…
I would absolutely love the Mayor to support us.
Can you tell me more about your educational work?
Our education manager, Emily Miller, has built our education programme from scratch and has reached 3000 children over the last two and a half years. She has done an amazing job. There is a great deal of demand for assistance with teaching about migration and teachers sometimes find this a difficult topic to address. Emily goes to schools, she delivers workshops and she talks to teacher trainers. She brought hundreds of children to the Calais exhibition, where she co-delivered workshops with a young refugee who had arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. She has delivered a pilot theatre in education project with Tamasha Theatre Company, and we are launching a competition with examination board OCR for students taking the new History GCSEs to design an exhibit for a Migration Museum. A permanent physical home would really help us with consistent delivery of this kind of high-quality education work that seems to be so much in demand.
Call me by My Name on Vimeo.