11 June 2003
News - Refugee WeekWhy Don't we Celebrate London's immigrant friendly culture?
New York has Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum; Toronto has an Immigration Museum; Melbourne is home to Australia's Museum of Immigration. But London, a haven for immigrants for centuries, has no permanent collection to document and celebrate London's diverse ethnic heritage. The nearest the capital (and the rest of the UK) gets to it's own immigration museum is a crumbling yet extraordinary Grade II* listed building in the East End, which struggles to keep it's doors open to the public even for one week a year.
Number 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields, which will be open during Refugee Week, has been home to more than three centuries of immigrants - the Huguenot silk-weavers fleeing France in 1744, nineteenth-century Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe (the remains of a Victorian synagogue hang like a stage set at the back of the house). The damp and dingy basement was used in the 1930s as a base to plan anti-fascist action against Moseley's blackshirts, and in the 1980's, when the Spitalfields Centre took over the running of the building it held English classes for Bangladeshi women. These days the centre does outreach work with newly arrived refugees from all over the world, as well as running projects for local schools.
But this remarkable cultural heritage is in danger of disintegrating unless major structural work (estimated to cost £2-£3 million) is carried out. The museum is in such a state of disrepair that only 40 can enter it at any one time.
Although £150,000 has been raised, mostly from public donations, for the first phase of repairs, there has been scant support from the major funding bodies. When approached by Time Out about the lack of support for Princelet Street and the need for an immigration museum, both the Minister for the Arts, Baroness Blackstone, and chief executive of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, were dismissive of the issue, citing financial restraints and the fact that many museums offer similar histories within the context of a larger institution.
Loyd Grossman, who is involved in the Campaign For Museums, takes a more positive view.
Southwark Council, meanwhile, has plans for a refugee centre, provisionally named the National Centre for Victims of Racial Violence, which will offer reference, research and advice on immigration issues, as well as on-site legal and medical support and an archive centre to document refugee histories. Work is due to start next year.
Back at Princelet Street, scrawled on a wall amid peeling paint and scaffolding, is one sentence.