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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed

The New York Times

11 June 2003

A Museum Tends the British Melting Pot


LONDON, June 4 — At each end of Brick Lane in the East End of London, little plastic flags offer visitors a warm welcome to Banglatown. With its textile shops, travel agencies, restaurants and halal butchers serving a thriving community of Bangladeshi immigrants, this bustling street could well have been transplanted from the Indian subcontinent.

Picture of Suitcase and Sanctuary exhibition. Joel Pike/19 Princelet Street.
Visitors to the Museum of Immigration and Diversity in the Spitalfields section of London can write on luggage tags what they brought with them as immigrants or what they would take if suddenly forced to flee their homes.

But if Bangladeshis have made this Spitalfields neighborhood their own in recent years, a far older story is told at a building on a street leading off Brick Lane. Here, in what is billed as the first Museum of Immigration and Diversity in Britain, the message is that immigration to London is hardly a novelty, that for three centuries the area around Brick Lane has been a melting pot for immigrants and refugees.

Given the scale of immigration from Britain's former colonies since the 1960's, the museum at 19 Princelet Street is modest. Although it will be open daily during Refugee Week here, June 15 to 22, it is struggling to raise $4.8 million so that the building can be open year-round. Even in its dilapidated state, though, it is a powerful symbol of the ever-changing face of Spitalfields.

Huguenots, or French Protestants, were the first foreigners to move into the neighborhood, in the late 17th century. Among the 50,000 or so Huguenots fleeing religious persecution by Louis XIV was Peter Abraham Ogier, a silk merchant whose family was the first to occupy 19 Princelet Street in 1719. The house has remained nearly unchanged since then: even the original kitchen sink is still in place.

In the mid-19th century, with Spitalfields then favored by Jewish immigrants from Poland, Lithuania and Russia, a synagogue was added in the building's garden by its new tenant, the Loyal United Friends Friendly Society. Today, though abandoned for worship, the synagogue remains a mute witness to a Jewish community replaced by a new wave of immigrants.

The 19th century also brought Irish refugees of the potato famine, but the next big change came with the arrival of Caribbean immigrants after World War II. They were followed in the 1970's by Bangladeshis and, most recently, by a growing number of Somalis. A rare touch of traditional Britain survives at the Christ Church Spitalfields Church of England Primary School on Brick Lane, but almost all its students are the children of immigrants.

Nearby, another building represents the evolution of a neighborhood more strikingly. Built in the 18th century by Huguenots as a church called L'Église Neuve, it has successively housed the Society for Promoting Christianity Among Jews, a Methodist Chapel, the Great Synagogue Machzikei Hadass and, since 1976, the Jamme Masjid Mosque.

It is through this prism that the Museum of Immigration strives to recount the story of newcomers to Britain, a mission similar to that of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which interprets the immigrant experience in Manhattan during the 19th and early 20th centuries. For the moment, though, the Spitalfields museum's priority is more mundane: to raise money to strengthen its buckling walls and floors, some now supported by metal pillars. Even so, there are no plans to restore or modernize the building because 19 Princelet Street is itself the museum's principal exhibit. "We want to spend money where it cannot be seen," explained Susie Symes, a former British government economist who runs the museum's board of trustees.

The Ogier family's kitchen and living quarters give an idea of 18th-century domestic life, although the former synagogue is the most interesting architectural artifact: it retains its 19th-century chandeliers and an elegant balcony with paneling that carries the names of members of the local Jewish community and the money they contributed to the building's upkeep.

An aura of mystery was added to the building by "Rodinsky's Room," a book by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair published in 2000 (Granta). It recounts the strange life of David Rodinsky, a Jewish hermit who for decades lived in an attic room at 19 Princelet Street and who vanished suddenly in 1969. When his room was opened 11 years later it was found to contain cabalistic drawings as well as notebooks in Sumerian, Arabic, Japanese, Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek and Russian.

Rodinsky's room is closed now, but once the upper floors of the building have been made safe his refuge will become part of the museum's effort to keep alive three centuries of memory. In the meantime, a semipermanent show called "Suitcases and Sanctuary," organized two years ago, sets out to recall the poverty or repression that prompted immigrants to move to Spitalfields.

The charm of this exhibition is that it was put together by children from six local elementary schools who, for the most part, come from immigrant families. Thus Somali children wrote poems about the Irish potato famine and took part in a video in which they re-enacted Irish families traveling to Britain, while Muslim children from Bangladesh enacted a Yiddish folk tale. The story of Bengali immigration was in turn told by children from a local Roman Catholic school.

"We have proved with the exhibition that people want to visit the house," Ms. Symes said. "The idea is that you can take historic buildings and give them new meaning today through what they evoke. And we see that with visitors, who may be strangers but eagerly exchange ideas and experiences."