In this month’s editorial of the UK Museums Journal, Simon Stephens writes about museums ‘Exploring the rich stories of migration’. It is the first official nod to a major issue of current public debate in the UK that I have read from a leading museums organisation. For this, I appreciate the editorial and I give respect to Simon for having put onto the official radar what so far no one has responded to. Thank you for that.
However, the editorial’s examples are also an illustration of some things that I’ve been mulling over in recent months, particularly the question of why I feel that museums may already be irrelevant with regard to many current, and very pressing issues of our modern societies.
The editorial states that ‘[museums] are often brilliant at exploring untold stories, including the experiences of immigrants to the UK’.
The first example is Norfolk 2000, which used the Norfolk Museum Service’s archaeological collection and commissioned contemporary artists to respond to ‘historical immigration’, with an upcoming exhibition in May. I don’t know if the artists themselves are immigrants (I hope so) or what their final pieces are about . However, in my opinion as an immigrant to the UK, the project’s focus on historical immigration, and workshops on the Romans and Anglo-Saxons, plays it far too safe to have any relevance to my experience, or any meaning in introducing the argument of the benefits of immigration into the current debate .
The editorial also refers to the impending opening of the Huguenot Museum in Rochester, telling the story of Huguenot refugees to Britain in three themes of Persecution, Refugees, and British Huguenots today . The editorial notes, ‘Interestingly, the MP for Rochester and Strood is Ukip’s Mark Reckless.’ Now that, right there, is the point that actually interests me too. How will the Huguenot Museum respond if Reckless is re-elected in May? Will they make it clear that their MP would make it as difficult as possible for another French person to enter the UK? How will they ensure their museum doesn’t become a bitter irony, and a place that would seem frankly ridiculous and irrelevant given this context?
And then the editorial mentions the Migration Museum. Poignantly, this ‘museum’ doesn’t actually exist physically (yet). It’s a project whose activities to date may have been limited, but they are actually relevant to my experience as an immigrant to the UK today. The ‘100 images of migration’ exhibition was crowd-sourced, and thus included responses from many immigrants to the UK themselves. It gave a wider perspective of experiences, from the mundane to the expected to the unusual. And Michael Rosen’s recent first annual public lecture provided a frank and critical analysis of the negative tone used in current UK public debate on immigration. This is the stuff we need if we’re serious about making a relevant contribution to exploring the rich stories of migration.
So what the editorial and its examples crystallized for me is the following: looking into the past with the intention of exploring a contemporary issue really doesn’t work. You can maybe use the past as context, or as an example, but nothing will replace engaging with what is happening right now. And without making that connection directly, and without responding explicitly to the contemporary experiences of people today, you are leaving a void that someone else will fill for you. With regards to immigration to the UK today, that void is the fact that too few voices are speaking out against the anti-immigration rhetoric of the major parties and the media. Museums’ silence just adds to that. It’s not objective. It’s not impartial. It does actually take a stance. It says, ‘We’re okay with that.’
 Their contributions to the blog don’t really say, but they also don’t make the connection to immigration very obvious.
 This, apparently, was at least originally the intention. Emma Reeve, the project manager, was quoted here as saying: “Immigration can be a contentious issue for some; this project will hopefully show many how beneficial it has been for Norfolk, and continues to be.”
 Again, these themes do not suggest immediate relevance to modern-day immigration.