“Listen to the building” is one of many messages inscribed onto the interior surfaces of 19 Princelet Street. This unassuming address off Brick Lane houses the Museum of Immigration and Diversity that is holding rare public openings for the upcoming Refugee Week, 13th – 20th June.
So what are the stories contained in its walls that compel us to listen? The building is a listed heritage site that was once a Huguenot silk merchant’s home and a hidden Victorian synagogue. It is an architectural documentation of the layers of immigration to Spitalfields and the rest of country.
But it isn’t just the walls that tell us the stories of waves of French Protestants, Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews, Bengali Muslims, and many more that settled in the area. It is the creative capacity of primary school children that is drawn upon to help us imagine what it is like to uproot one’s self and make a new home.
Perhaps the reason children are so good at narrating this country’s migration history is their ability to empathise. And perhaps it is also because childhood can be a metaphor for the experience of migration– a period of both wonderment and strangeness in which to sort out those complex issues of citizenship, identity and belonging.
As the museum reminds us: everyone is a migrant, it just depends how far back you go. You might say the same for the childlike imagination in all of us.