A TREASURE TROVE OF MEMORIES
by SAVITA VU
AN IMMIGRATION MUSEUM that provides a vivid Insight Into the history of settlers In Britain desperately needs £3 million for its survival.
Tucked away in London's East End, in between the City and the docks, The Museum of Immigration at 19 Princelet street is witness to nearly three hundred years of refugee history -that have passed through this end of town.
This includes the French Huguenots escaping religious tensions in the early 18th century, to Jews fleeing persecution, to the most recent Bangladeshi settlers.
Lord Desai calls this "our Ellis Island" - the famous entry-point to the US that saw over 12 million immigrants pass through between 1692 and 1954, and which serves as a museum today.
The small size of London's museum may not be able to hold many people, but it continues to hold thousands of precious memories.
It is captured through children's eyes as local schools from Tower Hamlets, are invited in to 19 Princelet Street to share this history.
Suitcases and Sanctuary, is an exhibition created in collaboration with nine and ten year old children, who worked with actors, poets and artists to discover and celebrate the richness of a multicultural past.
One group of Bangladeshi Muslim children from Christ Church School learnt Jewish songs and heard stories.
Visitors can sit in an old kitchen used by Jewish families to watch performances of one of their favourite stories, about a Jewish shopkeeper taunted by racist chants in Russia who found a quirky way to fight racism.
Another group of predominantly Jewish students have worked creatively on a display that explores the dreams Afro-Caribbean migrants had in the SOS and 60s and the realities that they found.
Philip Black, a member of the museum advisory board, explained the significance of these experiences.:
"One of the most unique things about the exhibition is that one community can learn about the struggles of another, that they know little or nothing about," he said.
"This kind of work also challenges prejudices that newer immigrants have of older immigrants. It's
amazing how much they learn."
A moving image within the museum is the piled up brown leather suitcases. Mr Black said: "It reminds many people about the journeys that they or their families have made."
This inspired ten year old Santosh Stride to make some of the exhibition. "I keep volunteering, to help people think about what it is like to leave your home for a new country," she said.
One of their youngest volunteers, Nikki Kaur aged eight, has frequently spent her spare time helping out at the museum. She told Eastern Eye about her favourite part of the exhibition: "I ask visitors to imagine what they would take with them, if they had to leave home me for ever
They write the answer on luggage tags, and leave it in a suitcase of memories". The answers vary, from common things like a Playstation, TV and money to sentimental ones like photographs, and the family tree.
Another volunteer co-ordinator is 19-year old Paramjit Kam. She feels her experiences of helping out at the museum have taught her priceless lessons about the world today as well as the past: "This project believes in empowering young volunteers, so [as part of my work experience] 1 have been to a conference in New York and spoken with Home Secretary David Blunkett," she said.
"It has deepened my understanding of human rights issues in the world today, and I believe that a special historic site like this place helps people learn lessons from the past making them better citizens today."
She added: "This place holds lots of stories, so that everyone can find something that they can engage with." The building itself however, is in urgent need of repairs, with scaffolding holding together remnants of an old synagogue.
It is estimated that between £2-£3 million is required to carry out the much needed structural work. Tassaduq Ahmed, a former trustee who passed away two years ago, campaigned tirelessly to raise the profile and funds for the museum.
A migrant from Sylhet in Bangladesh himself, Tassaduq won the support of the local community. government, business leaders and schools.
At meeting after meeting the new character of 19 Princelet Street was hammered out - an amalgam of Huguenot master silk weaver's home and workshop, 19th century Jewish house and synagogue and now a place of study and education in the story of Britain's complex immigration-to-integration process.
One of the newer trustees, Ashish Bhatt is continuing this hard work. Like many of the other volunteers, he stumbled across the museum after a visit and was touched by the spirit of the place.
He described the museum as "an important landmark not only for east London, but for the capital as a whole and the country. It is truly a living testament [o the rich tapestry woven by successive groups of immigrants coming here for resettlement. They have almost always added to the life of the nation."
Although the volunteers and advisors want this to be a permanent exhibition and museum, 19 Princelet Street struggles to keep its doors open to the public. This year, a rare opportunity is being offered on September 18 and 19 as part of London's Open House architecture exhibition. For one weekend a year, 500 buildings open their doors for the public to visit for free.