Making Migrants: The British Empire and Mass Migration

Given the anti-migration rhetoric currently dominating the political discourse you’d be forgiven for believing that Britain has always existed in a state of perpetual ‘splendid isolation’. The truth is the British Isles geographically, economically, culturally and politically have always been a beacon for migrants both historically and contemporarily. Concomitantly Britain as a former imperial power has instigated and enforced migration in other parts of the world. One of the most critical examples of this was the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. For a brief overview of this world changing event the following video produced by The Economist should help:

The partition of India and Pakistan resulted in an estimated 15 million people being displaced with another 500,000 dying as a consequence of conflict. The speed with which Britain drew up partition plans and then subsequently withdrew has been cited as one cause for the violence. With ongoing civil unrest and political instability post-partition many people sought refuge by migrating to Britain. Following a war between East and West Pakistan in 1970-71, the result of which was the creation of Bangladesh, many Bangladeshis fled to Britain.

Astonishingly this globally significant event which resulted in unfathomable mass migration and interminable conflict is left relatively unexplored in UK museums. As part of our thematic collecting project (’ll be exploring Britain’s role in instigating such migration and how it has impacted on collections and communities in Manchester. Soon I’ll be shooting a short film which will examine the effect partition had on diversifying Greater Manchester.

Together in Ethnographic Dreams

Last week over 300 UK museums joined forces on Twitter to celebrate Museums Week. It was a roaring success with innumerable museum experiences, challenges, memories, selfies and questions flooding Twitter. I found one particular question I was asked both stimulating and challenging in equal measure:

As a curator I am constantly inspired by the objects and people I work with, and this in turn stimulates countless exhibition ideas. To pick any single exhibition idea would be like testifying to having a single object of interest, impossible! However, over the past several months I have found myself increasingly intrigued by an ethnographic aesthetic embedded in popular music videos. This aesthetic is one based on a popular understanding of ethnic, namely tribal and non-western. My answer therefore was an exhibition on this very phenomenon, and included a link to this sublime video:

Acapella was directed by British team photographer John Waddell and musical director Chris Cottam. Kelis assumes the role of a variegated matriarch lambent in bead, feather, and face-paint as she straddles rainforest and desert with mesmerising ferocity. This is one of a pantheon of contemporary music videos to indulge ethnographically:

Of course this is nothing new, popular culture has for generations consumed and reconstructed the ethnographic in film, fashion and music. There does, however, seem to be a yearning, maybe a as consequence of increasing globalisation, for an escape to a 21st century imagined ethnographic simplicity. Around the world people are increasingly trying to reconnect culturally, whether it’s Mexicans and their Aztec ancestors or Britons and Druids. In this pursuit both music videos and museums play an extraordinarily influential role, both tangibly and intangibly.







A Royal Love Affair

Today Buckingham Palace sadly announced the death of Monty, one of the Queen’s beloved corgis. It’s well known that the Queen has a particular affection for the Welsh corgi but her predecessors had a fondness for much more exotic breeds.

Both the Pekingese and borzoi are two of the focus breeds featured in our forthcoming exhibition Breed: The British and their Dogs, and their patronisation by the royal family is well documented. Queen Victoria’s Pekingese Looty was presented to her by Lieutenant Dunne in the late 19th century. Dunne, along with other British and French troops, had captured the dog following the defeat of China in the Second Opium War in 1860. Prior to this the Pekingese had belonged exclusively to the Chinese imperial household.

Pekingese figure made by Carl Fabergé. UK, 1907, precious stone. The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The borzoi had equally impressive imperial connections. This breed, originally used for hunting wolves, was a favourite of the Russian imperial family, and the Tsar’s kennels were globally renowned. This imperial proximity and luxurious association made it the target of Russian revolutionaries in 1917. The Tsar’s kennels were closed and the dogs destroyed. In Britain breeders mobilised to prevent the borzoi’s extinction, this action was dominated by aristocratic women including Queen Alexandra.

Borzoi figure made by Carl Fabergé. UK, 1907, precious stone. The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The Royal Collection have very kindly loaned us several objects which illustrate this royal love affair, two of which you can see above.

Over the next several weeks I will reveal the remaining three focus breeds and more of the wonderful objects we’ll have on display.