The Migration Museum, London

The Migration Museum, London

(Image: Migration Map: museum visitors chart their journeys to the UK using string )

Here we offer two reviews of the Migration Museum, one from Hari Reed who is currently writing on humanitarian representations of Calais at the University of East Anglia, and Bassel, an activist who lived and worked in the Calais camp for eleven months, and who is a refugee from Syria.


Down a side road in Lambeth, on the upper floor of a disused fire station, the Migration Museum is suitably at odds with its surroundings. As you look down from the balcony onto a large red fire engine, your attention is drawn to the particular dislocation of the museum space. The stage is already set for the museum’s questions of what it means to belong. The exhibits in the museum’s three rooms are moulded by expert curation to the whitewashed walls and ceilings. Every inch is filled. Everything has a place and everything seems out of place. While the first room documents the ‘refugee crisis’ as a whole, the second captures the final months of the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp, and the third provides a glimpse of migration in Britain more generally. This wide range of material can feel jarring, but it evidences the vast potential of a permanent museum of migration in Britain - the ultimate aim of the Migration Museum Project.

The museum’s contents are an eclectic mix: found objects, paintings, sculptures, documentary films, photographs and participatory projects. Perspectives mix too, on long white sheets that hang from the ceiling. Statements from aid workers are positioned next to those from lorry drivers, refugees and anonymous online commenters. Professional documentaries play alongside amateur artworks; startling images of fire and violence provide the background for lighthearted stick figures made from plastic spoons. There is a sense of improvisation, of fluidity, and of multiple voices – capturing a sense of ‘Jungle’ life. A very deliberate sofa, and an enclosed space for documentary screenings, sectioned off by the canvas of the former Jungle Books library, offer an uncanny welcome. An interruption.

The booklet that accompanies the exhibition explains that the Migration Museum ‘hopes to stimulate, inform and question our responses and responsibilities towards contemporary migration, as part of the long history of migration to and from the UK.’ The museum succeeds in situating the current movement of people within a wider history of migration. It provides a space for thought and education. The museum could only benefit from reflecting on its own responsibilities in representing contemporary migration: whose voices are heard, who hears them, whose are unintentionally silenced.

Bassel, an activist who lived and worked in the Calais camp for eleven months, and who is a refugee from Syria, gives his perspective on the museum:

Initial reaction to the museum

When I walked into the museum, I was really surprised to see what is captured and shared there. It’s very important for other people to see all this. It’s a good place for people who want to know what’s happening, and what migrants and refugees have been going through. It shows so many things, more than I expected: all the fires, the suffering, the boats, the police, the riots. It pictures how people are living and how people go on their journeys. It’s covering a big part of what migrant or refugee journeys look like.

Most interesting exhibits

When you first walk in, you see this part behind the main board, where they’ve brought real life jackets that people were wearing. It makes you think about the people, when they were wearing these life jackets, and what they were thinking about. How much they were thinking about their chances of living or dying, drowning in the sea. It gives you the idea that peoples’ lives are on the line. It was very interesting for me because the way I see it is different. Maybe other people might see it as just life jackets, something normal. But for me, because I’ve been on the journey myself and I’ve seen many people on it, so I come closer to it. I put myself in the shoes of the people who are wearing these life jackets. It’s very deep and interesting.

When you walk in the door, you see some sort of bridge, with a lot of statues of people walking, maybe a hundred people, towards safety. It shows the misery people go through and how real it is. The entire thing is so real, when you see this bridge of statues, many people walking, it shows that there are a lot of people really suffering.

Representations of the Calais ‘Jungle’

The museum shows the way people used to live in Calais. It shows what people in Calais had suffered from, like all the fights with the police, all the tear gas from the French police and the authorities. It shows good parts and sad parts about Calais. I lived in Calais, so I recognised many faces there. I was really interested to see all these people and go back with the memories. It made me think about what they are doing now and where they are now. So much I recognised there. It’s a very sad fact. There are hard times; people suffer trying to cross and face all these difficulties and brutal treatment by the police, and French authorities or English authorities.

But for me, it was a little bit different in Calais. For me, I really liked the Jungle that was in Calais – that was demolished – because I saw this spirit of community and solidarity. We were all living together. People meeting each other from different backgrounds, different cultures; people learning from each other. In some ways, it’s sad, to know that it’s there and the reason why it’s there, but I see good things about it. I see beautiful people. Nice, welcoming people – and hope. I think the common thing about people there is that they all have dreams, they all have hopes. They didn’t give up. They are not the sort of people who would give up on their dreams or their hopes. To meet all these people in one place is really interesting: talking to them, living with them. For me, it was a school. I learned so much. It was also an honour to be with all these people from all around the world, in one place. It meant a lot to me and I am really grateful that I have experienced this in my life. I know it’s hard, for many people it is hell, because unfortunately the authorities want it to be that way. But it’s beautiful in its own way. It’s sad at the same time, but it’s also beautiful. That’s my experience. 

Response to the authorities and the volunteers in the Jungle

The museum shows how the authorities – the French police, CRS – were treating people in a brutal way: tear gassing them, burning their houses, demolishing community centres like churches or mosques. Not giving a chance or opportunity to the people to have a peaceful life in a place that doesn’t belong to anybody. Just chasing them and making sure that their life is more difficult. I think it’s not fair – it shouldn’t be that way.

I’ve seen myself the big part that the volunteers in the Jungle used to do. Without them there wouldn’t be water points, food distribution points, clothes, or anything. People in the Jungle might care more about their dreams and hopes than having food and water and clothes, but also it’s very important. Without the charities and the volunteers that were dedicating their time and their efforts to make those things available there, things would be much more difficult for all the people living in Calais.

Personal experience of volunteering in Calais

I had the language skills and I felt like I could do something: I could be helpful to others, and I had free time. So I said, why don’t I dedicate my time towards something that can be useful to others, and that kept me busy, and makes things easier because there is a big need for translators. I felt good to have peoples’ trust, and to be able to be a bridge between people who don’t speak the language and people trying to help them – trying to understand people’s problems and try to solve them in some way.

The importance of a museum of migration

I didn’t think about it before. I didn’t expect myself to believe that it’s important, but it is important. I felt good to see it there, because you could see that what people have been going through is documented and other people have access to see some of what was happening and going on. I hope it gets bigger and more people have access and know about it. We are all living in the same world, so it’s good to know what’s going on around us.

The Migration Museum is open at The Workshop, Wednesday–Sunday, 11am-5pm. Free admission. http://www.migrationmuseum.org/workshop/

Bassel is part of the production team of the documentary ‘Humans After All: Voices From Calais,’ a striking record of the residents of the Calais Jungle. https://vimeo.com/173921828

Hari is a PhD student at UEA and UK Coordinator of the charity IMAGINE, an arts-based refugee organisation whose artwork is featured in the migration museum.  http://www.assoimagine.com/

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