Civic Engagement on a Shoestring
Susie Symes, Chair of Trustees, Museum of Immigration and Diversity, 19 Princelet Street, London, England shared with Conference participants an English version of civic engagement. Her site, 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields in London is an unrestored Huguenot master silk weaver's home, whose shabby frontage conceals a rare surviving synagogue built over its garden. A dedicated group of volunteers are working to save the building and to create a permanent exhibition where visitors can discover the stories of waves of newcomers - Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Bengali and Somali peoples among many others - who have shaped this area and their nation.
The museum is located "on the edge" - on the edge of the city and on the edge of survival. The site is in its 21st year, but the story of why it has taken 21 years to become Britain's first museum celebrating immigration and diversity is important, too. Preserving the building is not just a physical task; it is a political one as well. For some visitors, the state of disrepair says something about the British and their treatment of immigrants.
Children and Artists Create Exhibit
A current exhibit, "Suitcases and Sanctuary," was created by children and artists working together. Children from six different local schools, many of them from immigrant communities, were asked to imagine the life of an immigrant and then tell those stories to each other. These stories became part of a very simple, but powerful, exhibit which, according to a commentary about the exhibit published in The Times, "dwells on the enrichment of Britain by outsiders, but also on the sorrow of exile."
Fragile Structure; Tenuous Financing
Because of the fragile nature of the structure, the museum is only open a few days a year, special occasion days directly related to the immigrant and diversity story. Not being open year-round makes it difficult to remain visible to the community and generate support for the museum. The donations tend to be modest and private. So far, foundations, companies, and the government have held back from fully supporting this effort. But that is part of being on a shoestring. Limited funds also means that the primary concern is to just "hold" the structure, which can be money spent invisibly.
In closing, Susie told her listeners that the mission of the museum is to not only engage the community, but also the world. "The idea is that you can take historic buildings and give them new meaning today through what they evoke."