What's in No 19 Princelet Street?
Monday 26th September 2005
Museums - A former sanctuary for refugees hopes to become Europe's first Museum of Immigration. Sebastian Harcombe is entranced
The English language harbours countless words of French origin. "Refugee" is just one of them. It crossed the Channel with Huguenot asylum-seekers, who fled Catholic persecution in France at the end of the 17th century. Many found sanctuary in east London, in the area around Spitalfields, setting a precedent for succeeding generations of immigrant communities.
Today, the district is one of the capital's most ethnically diverse quarters, celebrated in a mysterious museum at No 19 Princelet Street. Built in 1719 as the grand family residence of Peter Ogier, a Huguenot silk merchant, the building has sheltered individuals from myriad different cultural backgrounds. The parlour where the privileged Ogier children learned English became the schoolroom where 19th-century Jewish boys studied the Torah, reverting to its original function in the modern age by host- ing English night classes for Bangladeshi women.
The plan is that it will become Europe's first Museum of Immigration. At present, No 19 has insufficient funding to open for more than a few days each year. Determined visitors who make it in find themselves in a decaying, ramshackle Grade II* listed building. Metal struts support sagging ceilings; rooms are piled high with rotting furniture; and a galleried Victorian synagogue, added in 1869, greets visitors with weeping, bubbling plaster walls, tarnished metal chandeliers and lists of its long-dead congregation painted in gilded, faded Hebrew.
Ever since Gilbert and George set up house in neighbouring Fournier Street, Spitalfields has been the home of contemporary British art. Locals include the Chapman brothers, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin. No 19 Princelet Street houses its own permanent exhibition, "Suitcases and Sanctuary", created by local schoolchildren. Though this installation may not threaten to push any artistic boundaries, its disarming simplicity gives it a raw power that a certain conceptualist might give her tent pegs for.
"Suitcases and Sanctuary" is essentially the thread that leads visitors through the labyrinth of No 19. Luggage, crammed with photographs, letters, paper boats, cotton reels and even potatoes, spills over on to the floor and walls. The exhibition demands participation, from rummag- ing through piles of letters to filling in record cards detailing one's own genealogy. The first exhibit is a cupboard in which visitors from all over the world have scrawled translations of the phrase "Listen to the walls"; the last is a crackly soundtrack in the basement, which plays eerie disembodied local conversations in various tongues.
Santosh Stride is one of the children who created "Suitcases and Sanctuary". She explains how, using Yiddish folk tales, she and her classmates, most of whom are Bangladeshi, created poems, stories and a film exploring the persecution of the Jews. Guided by poets, actors and musicians, the pupils worked with materials from another culture's history. Roman Catholics explored the story of Bengali immigration; Somali children analysed the effects of the Irish potato famine.
Amid all these inspirational endeavours, the house also reminds us of the grim side of refugee life. In the 1930s, Jewish children from No 19 couldn't stray beyond the end of the street, for fear of running into Mosley's Blackshirts. The museum regularly welcomes groups of racially motivated hate-crime offenders, attempting to begin the process of untangling prejudice. The museum's director, Susie Symes, says: "Change happens through conversation, not by simply being told that 'racism is bad', and No 19 gets people talking. It captures the imagination by feeling colder, smelling different, having peeling paint. Ultimately, all of us are interested in identity, and the fact that people are watching the work of ten-year-olds somehow takes their guard down."
The last lodger at No 19 was a reclusive Polish scholar, David Rodinsky. One night in 1969 he went out, locked the door of his room behind him, and vanished for ever. Eleven years later, the door was reopened, revealing notebooks in many languages, sets of Kabbalistic drawings, a mummified cat and Rodinsky's boots, filled to the brim with dust. The museum hopes eventually to open this petrified world to the public, but grants are proving surprisingly elusive. Until they materialise, Rodinsky's room will remain closed.
Back down the stairs, one exhibit poses the question: "If leaving home for ever with just one bag, what would you pack?", requesting answers on blank luggage labels. One person had written "Hope" on hers. Another, more practical traveller, echoing my own hopes for No 19 Princelet Street, had printed the word "MONEY" in big block capitals.