Museum Of Immigration And Diversity Opens For Refugee Week

By David Prudames | 13 June 2003
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photo of an open suitace with paper boats inside

Left: looking at various stories of immigration, Suitcases and Sanctuary at the Museum of Immigration and Diversity will be open for the whole of Refugee Week. Photo: 19 Princelet Street.

The Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street, London is marking Refugee Week with an unprecedented eight day opening.

Visitors to the house in Spitalfields, one of the country's most multi-cultural areas, between June 15 and 22, will have the rare opportunity to experience the acclaimed Suitcases and Sanctuary exhibition.

Celebrating diversity and promoting understanding of the reasons why people seek sanctuary, Refugee Week will feature a nationwide programme of events. From art exhibitions, to lectures, music and dancing it promises to be an all encompassing event.

Philip Black of the Museum of Immigration and Diversity, which only usually opens for a handful of days each year, told the 24 Hour Museum why the week is so significant.

photo of the interior of the museum, with open suitaces on the floor

Right: the Grade II-listed 19 Princelet Street was once home to a Huguenot silk merchant and also conceals a synagogue from 1869. Photo: 19 Princelet Street.

"It's hugely important because of the contribution that refugees have made to this country over the centuries and continue to make today even though many of them come with huge amounts of difficulties."

“For hundreds of years refugees have come to this country for all sorts of reasons and have ended up becoming well-established and making substantial contributions to our society.”

As Philip went on to explain, the Grade II-listed 19 Princelet Street is certainly an appropriate place to acknowledge this contribution.

The former 1719 home of a Huguenot silk merchant and the site of a concealed synagogue from 1869, the building itself is steeped in Britain's rich history of immigration.

photo of a man looking into a mirrored suitcase.

Left: Philip Black looks into a mirrored suitcase. The inscription reads: "All of us are immigrants or descended from immigrants, it just depends how far back you look." Photo: 19 Princelet Street.

“It is a small space that addresses big issues and has a history that encapsulates many of the different immigrants that have come to this country.”

Suitcases and Sanctuary was created two years ago by local schoolchildren who gathered stories about a range of cultures that have made the UK their home. So far it has been seen by over 10,000 people and invariably provokes a thoughtful reaction.

“What happens when people come is that they start talking about their own past and you get a dialogue between people in the museum about their own family's history,” added Philip.

Explaining how the opening is a timely reminder of the need for a dedicated museum that celebrates the contribution of immigrants, Philip also spoke about the precarious condition of the historically important 19 Princelet Street building itself.

Old black and white photo of a large London townhouse.

Right: a dusty exterior in 1979, 19 Princelet Street held the stories of many different groups of immigrants. Photo: Clive Boursnell / 19 Princelet Street.

In desperate need of repair and significant restoration, the building was placed on the English Heritage at risk register last year.

“The focus has got to be on the future,” explained Philip, “which is raising the money to make this a permanent museum, one which always has its doors open.”

It is estimated that if it were to open permanently as a museum, 19 Princelet Street would require the investment of up to £3 million.

Suitcases and Sanctuary will be open between the hours of 12.00 and 19.00 every day from June 15 to June 22.

Find out what people all over the country are doing to celebrate Refugee Week by clicking on this link to visit the organiser's website.

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