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Immersive exhibition showcases immigrants' stories

IMMERSIVE EXHIBITION: Room to Breathe runs at the Migration Museum until July 28 (Image: Migration Museum)

WHEN YOU open the door into the Migration Museum’s Room to Breathe exhibition, you’re immediately welcomed into the lives of people who came from all over the world to make the UK their home.

Through text on a dressing table decorated with familiar items – rollers, a wig, an afro comb and family photos of bygone eras – Allyson Williams, a former nurse and hospital manager from the Trinidad, recounts her memories of the start of her life in the UK during the 1970s. Across the room audio of another contributor can be heard through a cushion; at a desk, letters and more personal histories are shared; and above a mantelpiece more immigrants talk about their lives in the UK through short video clips on small screens encased in picture frames.

STORIES SHARED: Visitors are encouraged to touch the materials on display

It’s impossible to unpack what it means to be an immigrant. Even those who come to the UK from the same countries can have drastically diverse experiences when they reach these shores, but Room to Breathe does an excellent job of capturing that variety while also showcasing accounts and artefacts that prompt us to draw upon encounters, circumstances and themes that connect us and many will find profoundly relatable. More than 100 individuals have contributed to the exhibition, including many from various countries in Africa and the Caribbean.

One of these areas that promotes understanding is food. In the middle of the kitchen room, visitors can sit down at a large table but instead of being fed produce, they can expect to be nourished by the stories of first and second generation immigrants whose tales are beautifully animated and projected on individual plates, while their voices narrate the visuals from overhead speakers. Around the room recipes and short bios of their authors are displayed on notice boards, while utensils and food products, some which will be known and others new, line worktops.

INTERACTIVE: The kitchen at Room to Breathe

While you can’t taste any of the food items on display or talked about, visitors are encouraged to explore the exhibition through touch, sight and sound and there are countless opportunities to do so. Whether you open up drawers to get a closer look at their contents, browse through correspondence or recline in furniture, there are many ways to immerse yourself in the lives of others.

In one room, you can take a seat in a barber shop chair, where instead of seeing yourself reflected in a mirror before you, men captured as they get shaped up and styled face you in various video clips. Headphones are provided for you to listen to their conversations.

BLACK HAIR: Women, including MP Dawn Butler talk about their hair

While the barber shop is a space that’s traditionally associated with men, women’s thoughts on hair are not excluded here. On another wall in the room, boards picture black women talking about their relationship with their hair – and the politics associated with it. Whatever their texture black women and girls will identify with the musings on “good hair”, the feeling of having their locks styled for special occasions and using the now much-maligned brightly coloured hair grease.

Room to Breathe gives us the opportunity to explore the idea of unity in spite of difference through the topics of food, work, home, family and assimilating, adjusting or just working to reconcile one’s new life with heritage and traditional customs or understanding identity as a Briton whose roots stretch across countries and cultures.

The breadth of the exhibition means you can spend a long time meandering your way through the rooms and diving into the lives of those who have kindly shared their stories with the curators – and us. And you’ll want to because of the exciting format in which the material is presented. The interactive elements help make it a treat for the whole family. Children will love the digital aspects, the ability to touch the items on display and see contributions from their age group in the classroom section, which is adorned with writing and vibrant displays by young people. While older visitors will relate to the accounts and items on display and equally enjoy the various ways they can engage with the information.

HOME: Contributors share their experiences of life in the UK

Sometimes museums can get it wrong when it comes to digitising elements of exhibitions but those behind Room to Breathe have expertly created a space that handles the narratives with care but also makes them accessible and fascinating to visitors in more ways than one.

While the government is still facing criticism for its treatment of members of the Windrush Generation, and human rights campaigners continue to question the Home Office’s decisions to deport people, including those who have spent more of their lives here than anywhere, Room to Breathe is a brilliant reminder, for some, of the contributions and sacrifices made by immigrants, as well as a celebration and exploration of their lives here. It’s a space to relive and reminisce but also one that educates and enables new experiences to be encountered.

“We hope can humanise and creatively explore the topic of migration that is so often discussed in terms of numbers, policies and economic cost-benefit, giving agency and a platform for people to tell their own stories and share their experiences,” a spokesperson for the Migration Museum told The Voice. It’s a mission that has been accomplished.

Here at Room to Breathe, stories aren’t just shared, they’re lived. Each space is incredibly inviting you’ll have a hard time leaving, and even when you do, the memories of this magnificent exhibition are likely to stay with you.

Room to Breathe runs at the Migration Museum until July 28, 2019. Admission is free.

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