Counterpoints Arts and Migration Museum Project: Adopting Britain exhibition

Counterpoints Arts and Migration Museum Project: Adopting Britain exhibition

(Visitors adding their migration stories to the Adopting Britain exhibition, London/Counterpoints Arts)

Conversation with Almir Koldzic, Counterpoints Arts: April 29, 2015

Taryn Higashi (TH): You have a lot of highly visible projects going on right now: the Southbank Centre’s “Adopting Britain” exhibitionRefugee WeekPlatforma, to name a few. Could you share a few key highlights of these projects? What are you most excited about? How are communities engaging with these projects?

Almir Koldzic (AK): We’re really excited about the Adopting Britain exhibition at the Southbank Centre. The exhibition is about telling the story of migration to Britain over the last 70 years. Our big and in some ways wonderful challenge was how to select a small number of representative stories of individuals and communities, who have come to the UK, settled, and contributed in a variety of ways. Our intention was to complicate the story of migration in some ways, but to also make it accessible. So far, the feedback has been really good. We expect between 30,000-50,000 people to engage with the exhibition. There are huge audiences who regularly come to the Southbank Centre for other events and reasons, so a proportion of those would come to see the exhibition. In partnership with other exhibition contributors (i.e. The Migration Museum), we also take part in tours and activities linked to it.

Another exciting element of this exhibition is that it has enabled us to start talking about creating a longer term partnership with the Southbank Centre, where we hope to regularly feature artists from our networks and profile exciting work emerging in this field. So, for Refugee Week 2015, for the first time ever, Southbank Centre will have their program lasting a whole week.

TH: Does this project take you to a different audience?

AK: Absolutely. In many ways, this is what you would call a mainstream audience: literally from all ages, all groups. Southbank has a big reputation as a national institution that can bring in people we would not be able to reach otherwise.

TH: How have current migration issues—the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, the elections—affected these exhibitions?

AK: Southbank said from the outset, the election is coming up, and we know migration will feature prominently, so we want to make a contribution to this debate and would like to work with you on it. But as a charity and inclusive organization they would not want to embrace or criticize specific parties. So how do you tell the story that challenges views, but is not overtly didactic or criticizes people for their views.

In terms of other current issues including the Mediterranean crisis, there is an ongoing conversation about what can possibly be done about it beyond writing to your MPs or joining an online campaign. It all feels distant and our collective challenge is how do we bring it closer to audiences here, make links to our lives here. In June this year we’re organizing dis/placed - a week-long progamme of events in response to global demographic shifts and unprecedented levels of human displacement. It will feature over 40 artists plus learning labs, discussions and performances exploring related themes. That is our attempt to make a contribution to addressing this specific issue.

TH: What is your wishlist for grantmakers?

AK: Getting more support for this area of work and especially for communicating the stories about this work. We sit between the arts and advocacy worlds. In the advocacy world, there are communications groups and some media links. In the arts world, it’s much thinner in terms of infrastructure. We don’t have extensive media connections. Some support in that field would be great, as it could also help us find ways of better promoting emerging creative voices.

Conversation with Sophie Henderson, Migration Museum Project: April 23, 2015

Taryn Higashi (TH): What role do you have in the Adopting Britain exhibition?

Sophie Henderson (SH): The Migration Museum Project has two exhibits there: 100 Images of Migration, which is a series of photograph that we collected from the public– from professional and amateur photographers alike. A few of the images represent famous people or well-known events, but most tell personal, individual tales. The exhibition has toured to various venues in the UK over the last couple of years. It seems to strike a chord wherever it goes, and to touch people. The other display is a lovely one called Keepsakes. It’s about things that individuals cherish, and might choose to hand down within families. Whereas museums tend to collect and interpret objects that are relevant to the story of the nation, the things that people collect and hand on within families probably matter far more to them personally. This is a display of 10 keepsakes, which speak of migration and identity with their accompanying stories.

TH: What kind of responses have you been getting?

SH: The Southbank Centre is extremely popular. It’s a well-visited and democratic space, an effective public building. It’s always buzzing. There are a number of points at which visitors to Adopting Britain can engage with the exhibition, for example by writing down what objects they might take with them if forced to leave for another country. It is quite clear that there are very high levels of participation. We are busy collecting as much information as possible from visitors to the exhibition so as to evaluate its impact over the six months that it is on.

TH: Can you talk about your work with the Leicester School of Museum Studies?

SH: Three years ago, we partnered with The Guardian to ask members of the public to send images that speak about migration. This was something that we were able to do at an early stage in our development when we simply had a website and no more. We received 700 entries and picked 100 winners. Leicester School of Museum Studies took it up and re-curated the exhibition, which was first shown at Hackney Museum in London, and put some of the images in public spaces, including in Leicester train station and around the university campus. They created digital labels and accompanying films, and made use of a smartphone augmented reality app called Blippar to enhance the experience. The exhibition is also on show at the Heritage Gallery in Greenwich. One of the strengths of the exhibition is that it is made up of a dynamic and growing bank of images and that it constantly changes – it can mutate and grow, taking on local or topical flavor wherever it is shown. 

TH: What else do you have planned for your education programs? 

SH: We’ve applied for funding to deliver workshops in schools, which encourage students to look at their migration history in the context of their local areas. We want to create a pilot in four schools initially and to begin to spread ourselves nationally a bit more, and more systematically. We want to develop a template for deep learning about migration in the schools that we can then roll out. We also have an exciting plan to deliver a series of theatre workshops exploring migration-related issues in schools, in partnership with a professional theatre company and emerging young playwrights.

TH: If you could make one wish for funders, what would it be?

SH: My wish for funders is that more of them would - like Unbound - recognise the real need that organisations like ours have for core, in addition to project funds. What is gratifying is when funders take a real interest in what you do and place a limited degree of trust in you to deliver meaningful outputs. None of that is to say that there is any less of a need for monitoring and evaluation - of course organisations must be held to account and required to demonstrate both a need for what they do and that they are achieving their desired impact.  However, against that background, it is refreshing when a funder takes the trouble to get to know you as an organisation and is prepared to help with things like salaries and running costs - these are some of the least glamorous but, but most important, aspects of what organisations like ours do.