When news emerged that the landing cards filled in by thousands of British citizens who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean in the 1940s and 50s had been destroyed, politicians on all sides were quick to point the finger at their opponents.
The mistreatment of the Windrush generation of migrants is particularly heartrending. These are British citizens who, at the British government’s invitation, came to this country after the second world war to work, live and help rebuild it. It is difficult to overstate the sense of outrage and rejection that their treatment must have engendered.
Vital questions remain about who is to blame, what needs to be done to compensate the victims and ensure that no one is forced to endure similar injustices in the future. But the casual destruction of these landing cards is also powerfully symbolic of the failure to recognise the central role that migration has played in our national story.
In the US, Ellis Island – the administrative processing centre for millions of new arrivals in New York – has been turned into a powerful national museum of immigration, visited by millions of people each year. Paris and Hamburg too have museums devoted to the histories of migration. In Britain, although local and regional museums such as the Museum of Liverpool explore aspects of our migration history, we lack a dedicated, national institution focused on the movement of people to and from these shores over thousands of years, and the ways in which this has shaped who we are today.
Debates around migration in both politics and the media tend to be shrill and polarised. Immigration is regularly cited by pollsters as one of the most pressing issues, and many people find the subject confusing. Research by the thinktank British Future shows that while a minority of people hold relatively fixed pro- or anti-immigration opinions, more than half of us have subtle and conflicted views, acknowledging some of the benefits that migration can bring, but anxious too about the costs and impacts associated with it.
There are no easy answers here – migration is, and always has been, a complicated topic. But a UK migration museum – which I and others have been working towards for five years – would give us a new way of thinking and talking about migration, and in a different kind of space. It would place the long and rich story of the movement of people, both to and from these shores over thousands of years, at the centre of our national life, where it belongs.
For the past 12 months, our project has been based at a temporary venue in Lambeth, south London. Our current exhibition, No Turning Back, looks at seven migration “moments” in British history, and invites visitors to reflect on the present in the light of what has gone before; not because there are easy parallels or simple lessons to be learned, but because these moments go to the heart of who we are. Our exhibitions have also served as a backdrop for education workshops for thousands of students.
We believe a museum would contribute something significant to national conversations about migration, identity and inclusion. In the world of culture – away from politics and the media – we encourage calm reflection, and the empathy that naturally springs from sharing stories and seeing the world through each other’s eyes.
It is essential that everyone who lives in this country feels that they belong here – whether new arrivals or people whose families have been here for generations. A recent visitor to our museum left us this message: “Thank you for showing ordinary people’s stories and that sympathy exists. [Your] exhibition made me feel more included in this country, although I’ve lived here all my life (16 years).” If our museum can help to break down barriers between “us” and “them” and foster a sense of shared heritage and belonging – not just for the Windrush generation, but for all of us – then it will have performed a valuable function.
If you haven’t yet been to our temporary museum, we invite you to visit, and let us know what you’d like to see in a permanent migration museum for Britain. And if the government and others are serious about changing the tone around discussions of migration, we urge them to get behind us and help us to make a permanent, national migration museum a reality.
• Sophie Henderson is director of the Migration Museum project