Situated between a Foot Locker and a TK Maxx in Lewisham Shopping Centre lies The Migration Museum, which has made a former H&M store its home since the beginning of 2020. During the pandemic, I passed by to buy a book for a friend in the ‘Lewisham Blue’ market style shop that they had put together with local designer Lucy Sanderson. With two slabs of the Berlin Wall directly outside, the museum definitely brings something new and unique to the shopping centre. Lewisham currently holds the title of ‘London Borough of Culture’ for 2022 before Croydon takes over next year. The museum certainly helps give some credence to that title.
Growing up in Lewisham meant there has been a huge number of ways in which migration has affected my life – some more personal than others. This ranged from the local takeaways I’ve enjoyed since I was a child to my own family history: my Grandad came to England from Nigeria in the late 1950s settling initially in Woolwich, in the neighbouring borough of Greenwich.
The team at the Migration Museum kindly invited me and my colleagues from British Future to have a look round their current exhibition Taking Care of Business: Migrant Entrepreneurs and the Making of Modern Britain curated by Aditi Anand. The exhibition includes historical and contemporary accounts of both national and international big names, as well as the stories of local entrepreneurs. The display was set up in a high street style fashion, with a variety of units including ‘The Night Spot’, a barber shop and a takeaway section – featuring a number of oral histories of migrant entrepreneurship which highlighted the many successful businesses that were set up by migrants. For instance, ‘The Night Spot’ tells visitors about the story of Lord Bilimoria, who moved to Britain from India in the 1980s. He grew frustrated by the fizzy and bloating nature of lagers at Indian restaurants, so worked to find a smoother and less gassy beer, which culminated in the launch of Cobra.
I then moved on to the the takeaway section of the museum, which has its very own Chinese takeaway, along with a wall of ‘fake Morley’s’ – from the photographic project entitled Morley’s or Less. Morley’s is the most popular of all London chicken shops, leading to numerous other chicken shops imitating its infamous red and white signage. Many of these imitation Morley’s have since been taken over by the franchise but have kept their cheeky copycat names. The first Morley’s was opened in the borough of Lewisham by a Sri Lankan immigrant in 1985 and has since spread across South London and beyond with the company now owned by the founder’s son, Shan Selvendran.
The most interesting section of the museum contained the listening booths (in the old H&M changing rooms) which gave visitors a chance to hear about the experiences of migrant entrepreneurs who had set up in Lewisham. This included Antonio’s story, who set up an Italian delicatessen just off Lewisham High Street in 2004. A couple of weeks prior to my visit to the museum, I popped into Antonio’s Delicatessen and spoke with the man himself about the best cured pork to buy for a carbonara. I felt the warmth and friendliness from him when I was there but it was great to hear in more depth about his desire for his staff and customers to enjoy their experience of his business, as well as learning about his shock after coming from a quiet village in Puglia to the bustling high street of Lewisham.
The contribution of migrants to our economy and society is on display everywhere in Lewisham. The majority of shops and restaurants I walked past en route to the museum were founded or staffed by people who moved to the UK from overseas. The great thing about locating such an everyday story within the walls of the Migration Museum is that it makes us pause, notice and reflect. It makes the ubiquitous visible and remarkable. So while it will be a shame when the Migration Museum eventually relocates to a more central London location that is more accessible to both Londoners and tourists, the evidence of migrant contribution will still be right here in Lewisham – and thanks to the work of the museum, more of us might stop and notice it.