Wednesday July 9, 2003
Never ending storyJohn Cunningham on the tangled past and present of a museum of immigration.
A hand-me-down house on the edge of London's East End - owned by a Huguenot silk weaver in the early 18th century, multi-occupied by Jewish families in the 19th and now surrounded by a bustling Bangladeshi community - would seem the ideal home for Britain's first museum of immigration and diversity.
The museum is in Spitalfields, where for centuries waves of foreigners have arrived, survived and - many of them - thrived. Most recent are Somalis; before them Bengalis. Both groups, and the descendants of earlier inheritors of the area, can visit 19 Princelet Street, just off Brick Lane, where they will find their ethnic narratives unscrolled and retold.
But they can go there only on the few days a year that the house is open. Because there is almost no money for running costs, let alone restoration, the museum relies on volunteers who, as well as guiding visitors, care for the fabric, curate historic records and update the website.
A charitable trust set up to found the museum raised £150,000 to buy the dilapidated property in 1981. But since then, the trustees have failed to find rich donors or wealthy organisations to back the project even though its message - that London has a tradition of welcoming migrants who, in their turn, enrich its culture and economy - is as relevant as ever.
The house is so fragile that only 40 people are allowed in at a time. Most of the £3m the trustees are trying to raise will go on restoring the four-storey brick dwelling and a "concealed" synagogue, not visible from the street, built on to the back.
Before the house can properly fulfil its educational role, it needs to be structurally sound. The heritage lottery fund is a potential funder. But the grant application - which the trustees are only now compiling - will, they say, cost tens of thousands of pounds in fees for specialised reports from surveyors, architects and engineers. And that money is not there.
The synagogue was built over the narrow back garden in the 1860s, to serve the influx of Jewish settlers from eastern Europe and Russia. Though it has not been used for many years, the names of worshippers, painted on the balcony, are still there, along with the modest chandeliers.
Like the house itself, with its creaky floors and decrepit panelled rooms, once used by the family of a prosperous master weaver, it formed a suitably poignant setting for an exhibition during Refugee Week last month. Several scuffed and battered suitcases - emblems of migration and relocation - lay open, their contents giving clues to the lives of their owners, as imagined by local schoolchildren.
With a grant of £12,000 for outreach work from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and assistance from actors, poets and local historians, pupils from six primary schools in the borough, Tower Hamlets, conjured up the stories of arriving immigrants from the past 300 years.
There will be another brief chance to see the exhibition this Sunday, but then the museum will be dark for several weeks. It is a state of affairs that the volunteers are the first to admit is frustrating.They are baffled by the poor response from potential donors who have been approached to help to fully realise the vision of the three original trustees. Their backgrounds were, appropriately enough, Bengali, Huguenot or Jewish.
Philip Black, a film-maker, and one of the leaders of the current rescue effort, has been shocked by the reaction of some high-profile figures who, he says, have said to him that "it would be much easier for you to raise the money if this project were not multicultural" - in spite of Black explaining to them that this is the essence of Princelet Street.
This is particularly galling to the Princelet Street helpers, because a host of small, single-theme museums flourish in London - including some with an ethnic focus. There is a Jewish museum, an archive of black history and Southwark council, in south London, plans a centre which, as well as aiding victims of racism, will have a section documenting refugee histories.
Major cities in other countries, including Sydney, Boston and New York, have set up museums of immigration, apparently without the problems London is having. The Tenement Museum in New York found it easy to get financial backing, says Black, "because many Americans think of themselves as having just come off the boat". By contrast, he reckons that "the British are not so comfortable with the concept of themselves as immigrants - that's the nub of the problem."
If that is the case, it has not changed over the years. Susie Symes was an economist at the Treasury and with the EU in Brussels before she gave up her career four years ago to become unpaid chair of the museum's trustees. She says: "When I took it on, I thought, 'This is the moment; we have Blair's Britain; people are talking openly about diversity.' But what shocked me a bit was finding the quality of response is the same as the first trustees got, all those years ago."
Although fortunes have been made by some of the local Bengali businesses, there has not so far been a big donor from this sector, though Symes and her team are well-known and well-regarded in the area. Her explanation is that "the closer people are to you physically, the more they take you for granted." She adds: "When [Bengalis] read about the museum in the papers, or see it on TV, they take it more seriously. But mostly they say: 'Our children come in and out [of the museum] all the time; we don't need to give it money."
Children from Bengali families do indeed throng the museum, but few adults from that community give their time. Delwar Hussain, who has a degree in anthropology, is one exception. He thinks the relative lack of financial support is because "businessmen are the same everywhere in expecting something back if they make a contribution."
That does not deter Hussain personally; he believes that children are the lifeblood of the enterprise. The notion of a museum with displays designed by children for adults has worked well so far; it will continue to be the policy.
Will the elusive £3m, once raised and spent, change the character of the museum? Hussain says: "Most people think there'll be laminated stuff on the walls, bright lights and security staff, just like a big museum. But hopefully, it won't be. In 10 years' time, it will be exactly the same - except that it won't be falling down."