The simple gold letters on a worn brown suitcase ask “Why did they leave Ireland?” The suitcase itself is lined with potatoes with words scrawled on them. One says “No Food No Money.” Another says “Sad, Sick Soil.”
Primary school children created this suitcase as they imagined being one of the millions of starving Irish who had to leave their homes during the potato famine. They collaborated with artists to create displays to similarly honour the Huguenots, members of Commonwealth countries, and Somalis who had also sought asylum in London. These children themselves were mostly Bangladeshi, the latest group of immigrants to come to London and settle first in Spitalfields. In their unique way, they created the “Suitcases and Sanctuary” exhibit displayed in the London Museum of Immigration and Diversity.
As I wandered around the exhibit reading the museum curator explanations typed on plain sheets of paper, I was struck by the never-ending cycle of the immigration experience. First, an immigrant group settles on the outskirts of London to live in the worst conditions and do the work no one else will do. They are vilified by current residents for “driving down wages and stealing our jobs”. Gradually the lives of these immigrants improve, they move into better neighbourhoods, and are absorbed into the mainstream. When a new set of immigrants moves into the outskirts of London, the earlier immigrants join the local residents in condemning these immigrants for “driving down wages and stealing our jobs”.
The museum is housed in a Grade II listed building so fragile that it is only opened to the general public a few weeks each year. The story of this building starts with the master silk weaver Peter Abraham Ogier who came to London to escape religious persecution in France. He settled in Spitalfields to escape control by the London guilds that would not allow Huguenots as members. In 1719, Ogier moved his family and work into a five storey building built by Samuel Worrell. In 1869, the back garden was covered and a basement dug out below. This space served as a synagogue where the men worshipped in the main sanctuary while the women worshipped above from the ladies gallery. The coloured glass roof through which light filtered created a beautiful experience for all. The synagogue was abandoned in the late 1960s.