Food & migration celebrated in London museum

Lunch is served at a previous gathering that preceded the opening of Migrant Museum (Image courtesy: Migrant Museum)

The story of migration is often confused with urgent, immediate crises that are too framed in political arguments and priorities. But the movement of people, whether across country borders or crossing continents has been witnessed for millenia, and with that flow comes food and drink. The routes of these issues and many more can be accessed through a new cultural centre opening in London on February 14, 2020. Unusually for a museum, this one is located in a shopping centre in south London, in the multi-cultural borough of Lewisham. The previous tenant of the space was the fashion retailer H&M and will support the Museum’s goal of finding a permanent, long-term base.

Food plays a vital role in the migrant experience
(Image courtesy: Migrant Museum)

There are many reasons for migration ranging from poor governance, famine, depletion of natural resources and war. It’s an issue that is often discussed at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in Piedmont, Italy from where I have just graduated with a Masters in Food Culture & Communications, and hence my interest in the museum as a cultural centre.

Sharing food is important for migrants when meeting new people from different cultures in a foreign land (Image courtesy: Migrant Museum)

Migrants and refugees do not lose their cultural heritage when they leave, too often under duress, their homes, instead it becomes an intangible link to a life left behind. Food from the homeland offers a taste of memory, and is a major influence and preoccupation in finding, cooking, serving and a significant social activity for immigrants and a major preoccupation. Food is a direct link to past lives, before the disruption of immigration. It offers solace to the dispossessed, helping them settle into new, unfamiliar locations and can make people feel alienated if the cuisine they grew up is not available to them.

Food security and migration are inextricably linked. In Central America, for example, the World Food Programme says that crop failures driven by climate-fuelled drought are driving forced migration across central America through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. 

Now, in London, England a museum is opening to tell the story of such migrants their personal stories, with a focus on the UK experience. Simply called the Migration Museum, this project positions itself as a cultural melting pot for recent migrants, their descendants, academics and the curious.

It’s opening comes at a time of the polarised public and political debate about immigration, identity across the world and at a time Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world is being recalibrated. Museums, artistic and cultural institutions are part of the solution to give voice to migrants in their own journey.

“As a new museum, we’re constantly asking ourselves how we can make what we do more accessible, breaking down barriers and reaching wider audiences,” says Sophie Henderson, director of the Migration Museum. “Which is why we’re so excited to be opening our new venue in the heart of a busy shopping centre in one of London’s most dynamic and diverse borough”.

Food will be an ongoing theme for the museum, explored through a series of exhibitions and events. One of the rooms in the opening exhibition, Room to Breathe, is a kitchen in which dozens of food-related personal stories are brought to life in creative ways including an animated kitchen table. It also features an ingredients shelf in which food-related migration stories are embedded onto everyday store-cupboard ingredients, and an interactive recipe book in which visitors are encouraged to share their own and their family’s recipes. 

The museum grew out of a project dedicated to migrants telling their stories. Previous journeys into the theme involved cooking classes in partnership with London-based social enterprise Migrateful which runs cookery classes led by displaced chefs who are struggling to integrate and access employment, due to legal and linguistic barriers. The group’s mission is to empower and celebrate chefs on their journey to employment and independence.

There’s an underlying story of comings and goings from Britain stretching back many centuries. And this story goes to the heart of what being British means today. Countries from Australia to the US, Brazil to Germany have popular, successful migration museums that provide spaces for exploration, discussion and reflection away from the anger and division often found in politics, the media and online. This is the UK’s first such institution.

The Migrant Museum will stage many more food-related events and exhibitions and hopes “to incorporate a restaurant and cafe as a central part of our curated museum given the centrality and interconnectedness of food and migration,” says museum spokesman Matthew Plowright.

Bruce McMichael

Food writing, discovering food stories, meeting producers, chefs and food enthusiasts are all part of desire to inspire, inform my readers and fellow food lovers. I am a freelance writer, journalist and published author focusing on the international world of food and drink, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy with a Masters in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing. I am now a visiting Professor at the university teaching Food & Drink Writing. Based in London I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur. In 2017 I won an episode of the ITV (the UK-based national television channel) cooking competition show, 'Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius'. I took my children on holiday to Sicily with the prize money. As an experienced farmers' market manager and operator of a small marmalade/ preserves company, I am very familiar with the issues surrounding local food, farming, enterprise and the environment.