Saturday, 26 January 2013

19, Princelet Street: The secret museum of Spitalfields

From the outside 19, Princelet Street looks nothing like a museum.  The building's ground-level windows are hidden behind wooden shutters.  Upper panes looking down blackly on the Spitalfields street below.  A fine carved double wooden door - kept firmly shut - could do with a lick of paint.  In a favourable light the building looks like a slightly tired, battered 18th century townhouse.  If one were feeling less charitable, one might assume the facade concealled a squalid doss-house or just rooms and rooms of damp emptyness.  But 19, Princelet Street is home to London's Museum of Immigration; small, chilly, free to enter, and entirely amazing.

Spitalfields transformed in the 17th century, as its market gardens and fields were replaced by streets and houses with the arrival of families of French silk weavers.  The French protestant Huguenots fled persecution back home in France and, like many different nationalities to follow them, settled as immigrants in Spitalfields.  One such Huguenot family, the Ogiers, built their home and business at 19, Princelet Street.  Over the years as the ethnic make-up of the area evolved the inhabitants of the house changed too, and each new nationality left its own mark on the building, marks clear to see as you make your way around the museum which now occupies this building.

Due to the current condition of 19, Princelet Street, the Museum of Immigration cannot open for regular days or hours like many of the city's other museums.  The poor structural integrity of the old building means that the Museum of Immigration only opens a handful of times each year, and visitor numbers are carefully controlled to prevent wearing out the rickety stairs and stressing the old sloping floors.  At the start of 2013 however, the museum opened its doors twice within a fortnight, and one cold January afternoon, accompanied by eternal good sport, the Accidental Ally, I joined a queue of expectant visitors patiently waiting for a glimpse inside this most secretive of museums.  Sadly, due to an unsavoury encounter with a tabloid photo-journalist full of unscrupulous tales of woe about a dying grandmother (yes, really), no photographs are allowed to be taken inside.  So I'll just have to describe the extraordinary interior of this place you might so easily wander past without giving it a second look.   

Over the worn stone threshold and into the narrow hallway, the state of the building instantly explains why visitors cannot tramp freely around the building on a regular basis.  Large scaffolding poles prop up the ceiling, and old floorboards creak underfoot.  Visitors hunch into their coats, as the prevailing internal climate can only be described as frosty.  Moving through into what you assume is the main room on the ground floor you are greeted with a somewhat surprising sight.  Where a backyard might have been you have...a synagogue!  An entire, perfect synagogue, the contribution of the Jewish immigrants to whom 19, Princelet Street became home back in the mid 19th century.  Piles of ripped out pews are stacked at the back of the large open hall, topped by a colourful but cracked and patched glass roof.  The names of the congregation members who donated funds to the upkeep of the synagogue are painted on the balcony which circles the space, and provided somewhere for women to sit during services.  Up on this second floor it appears that bits of this balcony are crumbling away, and visitors are requested not to lean on the balustrade in case they send any woodwork falling down on anyone below.

The museum currently hosts two exhibitions; 'Suitcases and Sanctuary' and 'Leave to Remain', which explore themes of migration, home and displacement.  Spread over three floors of the building, 'Suitcases and Sanctuary' takes the form of multiple piles of luggage, cases filled with pictures, diary extracts and audio material.  Each suitcase, created by local schools, imagines how different nationals that wound up in Spitalfields might have felt about their new neighbourhood and their new country, and all that they left behind.  Tucked into a large alcove on the first floor, 'Leave to Remain' explores the flip-side of immigration, asking how a host country perceives those who seek a new life within the UK.  A series of vox pop interviews - which appear to have been conducted on a train, given the matching seats all the interviewees are sat on in their polaroid shots - asks Brits what they think about immigration in the UK.  Some of the responses are non-committal, uninformed, unconcerned.  Others border on xenophobic.  On the opposite wall is arranged a miserable bed-sit, with further derogatory comments made by an immigrant him or herself pinned to the mirror, the narrow bed, and a hooded sweatshirt.  It makes me feel horribly sad, and incredibly lucky to be so sure that I belong here as much as the next person.          

By the time the Ally and I headed back out into the street, the queue for the museum stretched to the end of the street, and right round the corner.  Passers-by scanned the assembled visitors, looking from the keen faces to the unassuming building and back again, wondering what was so worth the wintery cold wait.  But those of us who'd already sneaked a peak inside knew exactly what it was.  

The Museum of Immigration is opening its doors again in March 2013.  Details of visiting times can be found on the museum's website here.  I don't work for 19, Princelet Street, nor do I have any particular agenda in encouraging anyone else to support the museum, but this place is not only a museum; it's a piece of architectural heritage in its own right.  I would be very sad to see this place be lost forever.  But this will happen if funds aren't raised to keep the building safe and sound.  You can donate to the Spitalfields Centre charity online, to help the organisation reach their (to my mind!) thoroughly reasonable £3 million target to save 19, Princelet Street.

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  1. What a fantastic place this must be! I couldn't help noticing that a French family started it all... We are indeed everywhere (I am French when it suits me)! London is a very international place. I have to admit that I had never heard about such a museum. I need to check it out!

    1. Please do go, Muriel! It's extraordinary and you really have to see it for yourself to get quite why.

  2. I just heard about this place recently! It sounds just amazing, given my interest in immigration and history. I must try take a turn there one day.

  3. As an attempted and failed immigrant to London, and as someone who has watched xenophobic small-mindedness rise and overtake Britain's immigration policies and rhetoric, I'd dearly appreciate the chance to wander through this museum a while.

    1. It's really worth a visit, Mark. Challenging, sensitively-handled, and inspiring...keep an eye on their opening times and I hope you get to explore the place some time.


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