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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed

Time Out

11 June 2003

The article as it appeared in the magazine.

News - Refugee Week

Why 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. "We don't want to preserve. We want to hold the building as a found object, and retain the different histories and lives it has," says chair of the Spitalfields Centre, Susie Symes. According to Symes, the aim is to strengthen the floors and walls invisibly from the inside and to retain it as a living building. She envisages a place where technology could be used to bring the place alive without overloading it with storyboards and audiovisuals.

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. "We too often take our history as cited by historians, Princelet Street exposes our very complex history which is rich and multilayered and shared by diverse communities who have been attracted to London from all over the world. It's sad we don't have a museum to reflect this. We should have something of the quality of the Tenement Museum in New York."

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. "We've got to move away from the idea of 'tolerance' - refugees aren't people who should be 'tolerated' - and celebrate diversity and inclusivity," says lawyer Imran Kahn, who is heavily involved in the project. While the new centre will lack the historical reverberation of Princelet Street, it does signify a small shift in attitude.

Back at Princelet Street, scrawled on a wall amid peeling paint and scaffolding, is one sentence. "You must listen to the past.". Written by a newly arrived woman from Burundi it is a pertinent reminder that by failing to value our diverse history, we are undermining the rich contribution that present and future immigrants make to our vibrant city.

Rebecca Taylor.