‘No Turning Back’: Tracking Stories of Migration in Britain
Clelia Clini
This exhibition demonstrates that migration has been critical to the shaping of this country long before current debates

Since the Brexit referendum in July 2016, migration has been one of the most hotly debated topics in the British public sphere. Indeed, the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union has brought to the fore questions of boundaries, identities and belonging. Yet, despite the sensationalism with which migration is treated by media and politicians alike, none of this is actually new, as the latest exhibition hosted at the Migration Museum shows. Entitled No Turning Back: Seven Migration Moments that Changed Britain, this exhibition is a timely reminder that the process of migration itself, into and from the UK, has always been part of British life, and that without it, the country would certainly look very different today.

The exhibition brings together photographs, art installations, personal stories and commentaries around seven pivotal migration moments in the history of Britain. It ranges from the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, to the 2011 Census which revealed an 85 per cent increase of the number of people who define themselves as mixed race, compared to the previous one of 2001. In between these two moments, the exhibition tackles the arrival of the Huguenots fleeing oppression in France in 1685, the first journey of an East Indian Company ship from Tilbury to Surat in 1607 – asking whether this was the beginning of globalisation – the 1905 Aliens Act, the ‘Rock Against Racism’ movement in the late-1970s and the first ever long-haul passenger jet flight in 1952. Significantly, these events are not presented in a chronological order, so that the visitor is free to explore the connections and parallels between these different moments, and between the past and present.

‘Postcards from Nowhere’ (Shao-Jie Lin) shows 65 postcards made from the pulped landing cards refused by the UK Border Agency – 65 also being the average number of people who are denied entry to the UK every day. It is impossible not to make the connection between this installation and the Alien Act previously referred to, and, before that, to the expulsion of the Jews.

Analogously, the wall covered with the front pages of newspapers which, in the run up to the Brexit referendum, discussed migration in terms of ‘invasion’, ‘deception’ and ‘protection of borders’, point to a resurgence of racism.

In this light, Rock Against Racism being chosen as one of the turning points for Britain testifies to the influence it had on people and the nation as a whole, as well as exhorting people to not stand by racism, but instead, to fight it. While, of course, being a way to pay homage to the creativity that emerged out of that moment (let’s not forget about White Riot or Punky Reggae Party!) Moreover, Andy Barter’s portraits of mixed-race families in Britain and Angélica Dass’s installation ‘Humanae’, where the artist used the Pantone colours to catalogue every human skin tone, exposes the feeble fantasies of purity and race, whilst calling for an inclusive notion of Britishness.

Not willing to identify these seven moments as the only key ones in the history of migration into and from Britain, the exhibition also exhorts the participation of visitors, who are encouraged to write down what they believe to be a key migration moment and to leave it there for the curators. But, focusing on these moments the exhibition provides an exploration to questions of migration, identity and culture that is badly needed at this historical moment in time. They remind us that, as the late Edward Said argued, no one is ever exclusively one thing, and that the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale started well before the Brexit referendum.

‘No Turning Back: Seven Migration Moments that Changed Britain’ exhibition runs until 25 February 2018. Opening hours: 11am – 5pm Wed – Sun, with a late opening the last Thurs of each month. Location: Migration Museum at The Workshop, 26 Lambeth High Street, London, SE1 7AG. Free admission.

See also ‘Experiences of Creativity’ workshop (12.30 – 5.30pm) held this Saturday at the Migration Museum.

Photo Credits: Susan and Joseph, part of Andy Barter's Mixed series © Andy Barter
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