UKREN blog

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Exhibition: Call Me By My Name

Call Me By My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond
By the Migration Museum Project
Jun 2, 2016 - Jun 22, 2016 | 12pm–8pm (open every day) | Free admission
@Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, London E2 7DP

This week, I visited the Migration Museum Project’s new exhibition in Shoreditch- Call Me By My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond. The exhibition, which opened at the beginning of June is a captivating collection of artworks and artefacts documenting life and loss from the ‘Jungle’ camp of Calais, and beyond.

I attended a talk titled ‘What is Britishness?’; part of a series of events happening in the space this month. The discussion panel was comprised of Professor Robert Tombs, author of The English and their History, Robert Winder, author of Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, and author and broadcaster Afua Hirsch, who is currently writing a book on national identity and belonging. The panel was chaired by British Future Director Sunder Katwala.

Katwala guided a fascinating discussion which meandered from ‘what is Britishness’ (simply the desire to be British?); to changing identities in relation to regional and continental spaces, and generational shifts in identity.

Hirsch breathed life into a conversation which can often become co-opted by white perspectives. She read excerpts from interviews she had held with young Black/Asian/Minority Ethnic students at the University of Oxford. The students revealed that the more they learnt about Britain’s history- as Winder described it: “mainly inglorious, but also glorious”- the less connected they felt to a sense of ‘Britishness’.

Winder paid homage to the great ‘institutions’ of Britain, such as the NHS, the BBC, parliament and the justice system. The celebration of the latter institution felt a little ironic, in a gallery space displaying artworks created by asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants being held back in desperate conditions behind wire fences representing the most militarised borders in the world.

All panellists were critical of the ‘British values’ UKIP-style rhetoric which has been absorbed by the UK’s ‘Prevent’ scheme- a  set of guidance embedded in the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act which assists authorities such as schools and hospitals in their legally-bound ‘duty’ to have “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. The ‘key British values’ as defined by Prevent include: ‘democracy’; the ‘rule of law’; ‘individual liberty’ and ‘mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.

'British values' posters appeared ahead of a Prevent inspection in a language school in May 2016

Tombs acknowledged that these concepts are celebrated in many countries across the globe, and that it is particularly disingenuous to claim them to be specifically British, especially in the context of Prevent, whose racial profiling is far from 'freedom', 'trust' and 'friendship'. Yahya Birt writes on his blog that these so-called British values are “not parochially British nor are they unsubstantiated in the Islamic interpretive traditions or unpractised throughout the long and rich history of a world religion with 1.6 billion adherents. More importantly such values do not resolve conflicts in themselves. Rather, they define the very ground upon which we agree and disagree as to their meaning, application and commensurability”.

Hirsch expressed that Britain hasn't dealt with all of the parts of its history, such as the Empire, which makes it difficult for young people to ascribe to national identity.

The talk was a fascinating exploration of ‘British’ identity, and displayed a wealth of different perspectives: an interesting leaping-off point from which to explore the variety of experiences documented in the exhibition.

Catch the free admission exhibition 12-8pm every day until 22nd June, and a range of accompanying events in the space.


By Leah Cowan


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