Exhibition explores stories of migrants creating lives in Britain


A NEW immersive exhibition exploring the journeys of around 100 migrants who settled in the UK opened in south London last Thursday (1).

Room to Breathe, a collection of stories of immigrants, looks at the people who arrived in Britain over generations and created a new life for themselves in this country.

Based at the Migration Museum in Lambeth, the exhibition uses personal and communal
spaces, including a bedroom, classroom, kitchen and a barber’s shop, to bring a set of unique stories to life.

It invites audiences to explore audio recordings, films, photographs and personal objects which all tell the narrative of people as they go through the process of settling in a new land.

“We made it immersive, so we were able to take that distance away between the audience
and the person who is telling a story,” Aditi Anand, one of the museum’s curators, told Eastern Eye. “It is about collapsing that divide, so it isn’t just a story you’re reading on a wall, but something you’re inhabiting.”

Visitors can engage with the exhibition by opening drawers, picking objects off shelves
and looking through old photographs to discover more about the individual stories.

IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE: Visitors look at photographs and objects in Room to Breathe

In the bedroom space, a saree hangs in the wardrobe with a note detailing Bangladeshi immigrant Nojmun Nessa Khanom’s memory of arriving in the UK in 1981. She started her first job at a garment factory.

“I loved it because it was the first time I started earning money,” Khanom recalled.

Various sauces, food tins and cooking materials are on shelves in the kitchen, with labels which reveal the favoured foods and memories from the native countries of various migrants from India and the Caribbean.

The classroom scene captures a variety of experiences from children who had to adapt
to a new life from a young age.

Bushra Nasir CBE, who became the first female Muslim head teacher of a UK school, told her own story of how she kept her religious values separate from her school experience.

“Growing up, it was sometimes hard to be different from other children,” she said.

“When I was fasting during Ramadan, the school wasn’t aware I was fasting… I just used to pretend I was dieting.”

STORIES: A visitor checks out the label on a jar on food at the Room to Breathe exhibition

The accounts come from a range of backgrounds and timelines – the earliest story is from the 1930s and the most recent from last year. Anand explained that the idea was to
have all the stories in one room, rather than just focusing on one era.

“What is beautiful is anybody who has come here has an interesting story to tell,” she said. “We tried to find a balance and define people from different ages and time periods.”

She believes immigration is misconceived in the UK. On one side, she explained, there is a notion that migrants are benefit scroungers, with a lot of scare-mongering going on in the media. However, on the other side, people who champion migrants can sometimes tell a one-sided story which only depicts them as heroes.

“But, in some ways, what is more interesting is the places in between,” Anand added.
“The narratives of the day-to-day life.”

The museum will also offer an array of interactive events and activities throughout the year, including cookery classes and art and craft workshops, to enable people to engage with one another.

“We want to break that divide between strangers,” Anand said. “That is at the core of [the exhibition] – breaking down barriers.”

Room to Breathe is at the Migration Museum until July 28, 2019. Admission is free.