With more than a million refugees making the treacherous journey across Europe last year, and thousands living camps across the continent, it can be hard to comprehend the plight of specific individuals fleeing war, persecution, and terror.
An exhibition this spring in London told the stories of the people behind the statistics, with the aim of sparking debate about the long and complex history of migration in the U.K.
The exhibition, titled Call Me by My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond, is the most ambitious to date from the Migration Museum Project, a group campaigning to create the first dedicated national migration museum in the U.K.
Located in London’s East End–a very multicultural part of the city with a history of immigration dating back to the late 17th century–the exhibition runs through June, the month in which the U.K. votes on whether to stay in the European Union. With concerns over migration cited as a reason by many of the the Brits want to leave the EU (because of the belief that migrants take jobs and housing that should be for U.K. citizens), the timing is particularly potent–and intentionally so.
The exhibition comprises work from artists, volunteers, and photographers who have visited the refugee camp known as “the Jungle” in Calais, France, as well as the refugees themselves who are stuck there, hoping to reach the U.K. The unofficial camp, which was partially destroyed by the French government a few months ago, continues to grow. Sitting on the site of a former landfill on the northern coast of France and lined by miles of razor wire fence, the Jungle has become a temporary home to more than 5,000 people of about 20 nationalities–including Somali, Sudanese, Syrian, Kurdish, Eritrean, and Pakistani. Amid the squalor and makeshift shelters are shops, restaurants, places of worship, and a school. Despite recent fires and regular episodes of tear gassing, the camp continues to attract migrants trying to get to England.
The intention of the exhibition was to “humanize” the refugees at a time when there is so much fear and hostility toward them, Sue McAlpine, curator of the exhibition, tells Co.Exist. “A refugee is an ordinary human being, with a family, with a profession, with hopes and dreams–neither an angel or a victim,” she says.
Exploring the identity of refugees presents a challenge, however. Many refugees don’t actually want their image or name revealed in case they’re detained by authorities in Europe or recognized back home. This means much of the work contributed by them is anonymized, such as the paintings by a Mauritanian refugee who goes by the pseudonym “Alpha.”
McAlpine says that the artists from the camp are happy to have their voices heard, unskewed by the media, even though they can’t see their work in the gallery, which is about 100 miles away, in the country they’re desperate to reach.
Tents and shelters, made of materials and objects brought over from the camp, have also been recreated in the gallery space to give visitors a sense of the living conditions and evoke empathy. “I wanted to raise awareness for people who don’t know–for people who are frightened about a swarm of migrants–and hopefully change people’s attitudes,” says McAlpine.
Nick Ellwood is an illustrator who spent a month living in the Jungle, drawing the refugees he got to know there in their shelters. Some of his portraits are displayed as part of the exhibition. “It was always my aim to communicate it as broadly as possible, with as little judgment as possible, to do it objectively, to get away from headlines and try and communicate it as closely as I saw it myself,” he says.
Although immigration is a scorching hot topic at the moment, it extends back centuries in the U.K., from the Roman and Norman invasions to waves of Huguenots, Jews, and migrants from the former British colonies such as India and the West Indies. “This is a country of movement of people from the word ‘go,’ and Britain has a reputation of welcoming people,” says McAlpine. “We wanted to acknowledge the richness of cultures and of contributions that immigrants have made to this country and where we’d be without that contribution.”
Given this history and current political climate, the need for a migration museum, akin to those in Paris, Adelaide, Australia, São Paulo, Brazil, or even Ellis Island in New York, becomes more pressing. The 19 Princelet Museum, which is a former Huguenot silk merchant’s house in East London, tells the story of migration in that area. But McAlpine says that the Migration Museum Project wants to do this on a national scale. For this reason, it’s considering becoming a traveling museum, with a base in London.
In the two years since its inception, the Migration Museum Project has hosted a handful of exhibitions and events. And it has some influential trustees and supporters, including Lord Alfred Dubs, the British politician who came to the U.K. as a child after fleeing the Nazis and recently advocated for Britain to take more unaccompanied child refugees from Europe.
For now, the Migration Museum simply needs more cash to become a permanent institution. “Museums have had to change a great deal in the last few years, and they can no longer be repositories of ancient objects,” says McAlpine. “They have to be collaborative, they have to involve the people, and they have to look at current issues, without political comment,” she adds. “And I think we are in a very powerful position to do that.”
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