Rachel Shabi writes: The central exhibit of the Museum of Immigration and Diversity is the building itself. Located in London’s East End, it straddles the Docklands to its east, where new arrivals to Britain once hit dry land, and to its west the city, whose shiny office towers stand as the symbols of wealth and opportunity that have attracted so many newcomers.
This unassuming Georgian building on 19 Princelet Street has migration written into its bricks and mortar. Built in 1719, the house was once home to Huguenots fleeing persecution from Catholic France, and then to families forced to leave Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s. Later in the 19th century, Jewish refugees from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe turned the garden into a small synagogue. In the 1930s, the Jewish East Enders used the basement to hold meetings for the movement that faced down the fascist Blackshirts in the famous Battle of Cable Street.
The period that followed bequeathed one of the nation’s most enduringly positive immigration stories. Just before World War II, Britain took in some 10,000 mostly Jewish children through the Kindertransport rescue program. Last year, one of those children, Alf Dubs, a Labour member of the House of Lords, won popular support for his campaign to bring 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees into the country.
In the postwar period, the Princelet Street house and surrounding streets were home to new migrant communities — from Bangladesh, the Caribbean and, most recently, Eastern Europe. Much like New York’s landmark Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Museum of Immigration and Diversity intertwines all these strands. Each room showcases a different aspect of the immigrant experience, narrating histories through objects, diaries and recordings.
In a larger way, of course, the very story of Britain has always been one of migrants. Poke around behind Britain’s currently rigid surface of chauvinism and a composite picture emerges — of Romans, Vikings, Celts, Normans, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Africans and more. The whole country is a living museum of immigration — if only its people would acknowledge it.
But Brexit Britain, you might suppose, is not a country much inclined to hear migration stories. Whatever else can be read into the referendum vote to leave the European Union, it was characterized by hostility about the flow of people to Britain and campaigning that played heavily on fears of immigration. [Continue reading…]