Alex King discusses the Leeds City Museum exhibition that celebrates the city’s important history of migrants, countering the nasty narratives in today’s media surrounding immigration.
Opposite the BP garage on Cardigan Road, there’s an anonymous red-brick building with a blue door, boarded-up windows and the tiniest fragment of a story pinned to its outer wall. A faded sign displays the building’s old function: LIBRARY, written first in English and followed by three South Asian languages.
What’s rather endearing about this decades-old sign - produced, presumably, with the best of intentions - is that its hapless translator merely spelled out ‘L-I-B-R-A-R-Y’ in the Urdu, Hindi and Bengali alphabets. They’re transliterations rather than translations – puzzling riddles, rather than kindly pointers, for Hyde Park’s post-war arrivals from the subcontinent.
What other loose ends, beckoning threads and wayward strands are scattered about Leeds, whispering tales of what it was like for migrants to arrive, settle and thrive here in the heart of Yorkshire? This dysfunctional signage is just the tip of a huge iceberg of migration stories, floating just beneath the surface of the city.
"When we think of migrants as similar to us, with the same aspirations and ideals, we can empathise with their stories, and foster an understanding and an appreciation of diversity and interconnectedness."
Through curating ‘A City and its Welcome’, Leeds City Museum has decisively upturned that iceberg by putting on display – until January 5th – a patchwork of artefacts collected from three centuries of migration to Leeds. The result is to highlight the remarkable journeys of the city and its people in making Leeds what it is today, as the museum’s Curator of World Cultures, Adam Jaffer, explains: “Migration has shaped the city of Leeds,” he says. “Migrants often have interesting stories to tell. When we think of migrants as similar to us, with the same aspirations and ideals, we can empathise with their stories, and foster an understanding in, and an appreciation of, diversity and interconnectedness.”
The exhibition eloquently underlines this point by peering into the distant past – beyond arriving Commonwealth citizens, European Jews, the Irish, the Roma, and the Huguenots (French Protestants) – to Medieval and prehistoric times, when it was Vikings, Normans and Romans setting up shop in Leeds. “Everyone who lives in Leeds today either descends from migrants or has migrated here themselves,” reads the thought-provoking introductory panel.
Speaking of setting up shop - those who have visited the first Marks & Spencer penny shop in Kirkgate Market may know that half of the name belongs to Michael Marks, a Polish Jew who co-founded the store in the Market in 1884, just two years after arriving in Britain. Similarly, Montague Burton, who arrived as a Jewish-Lithuanian refugee in 1900 and founded his menswear business in Leeds. Now boasting over 400 stores, Montague went on to receive a knighthood in 1931. As well as showcasing Leeds’ first Chinese restaurant (delightfully named ‘Man Fangs’) and the opening of the city’s first Sikh Gurdwara in Chapeltown, the museum’s curators also introduce us to the stories of recent migrants – many of them refugees like Burton.
“I’m pleased we’ve used quotes on the wall to provide a first-person perspective,” expresses Adam. “I’m happy we were able to represent an LGBT+ refugee’s story, to show he has found safety here. This was done with assistance from West Yorkshire Queer Stories and MESMAC - it’s not a story we would have been able to collect and display without their generous support.”
The exhibition is a celebration of the diverse communities that now call Leeds home. But what’s inescapable, as you pick your way through the colourful, strikingly personal exhibits, is a growing sense of pride – in triumph over adversity, in the kindness of strangers, and in a city and its welcome.
“Leeds should be proud of the kindness it has shown to people – now, and in the past.”
As Adam says: “Brexit has led to migration being discussed a lot in the press, and exhibitions like this can contribute to the discussion, using personal stories of migrants as a basis”. He goes on to add what I took away with me when I stepped out onto Millennium Square. “Leeds should be proud of the kindness it has shown to people – now, and in the past.”
At the end of the exhibition’s wall-length timeline is a short piece on Eileen Taylor, daughter of the Windrush generation, who became the first black Lord Mayor of Leeds in 2019. As that timeline pushes into a new decade, it’s for Leeds’ current residents to continue what is clearly a centuries-old tradition – older, even, than fish, chips and scraps - of showing a helping hand and a welcoming smile to new arrivals. Even if we happen to mistranslate a few dodgy signs along the way.
Readers of Nice People can redeem a special offer of a slice of cake and a regular tea / filter coffee for only £4 at Leeds City Museum Café. Valid until 29 Feb 2020 for up to two people when you show this offer at the till. Only available at Leeds City Museum Café.
Illustration by Joshua Pell (@pelltopsy)