Museums Association – Time is running out to ensure Windrush is properly commemorated

Time is running out to ensure Windrush is properly commemorated

Seventy-five years since HMT Empire Windrush docked in Essex, there’s a growing sense of urgency to keep this chapter in our history alive.

Between jubilees and coronations, there have been no shortage of national holidays lately.

On 22 June, the UK marks an equally momentous occasion, but one that hasn’t, in the past, been given the same high profile: the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush to Tilbury Docks, Essex, bringing 802 Caribbean citizens to help rebuild postwar Britain.

Those immigrants were the first of about 500,000 people from Caribbean Commonwealth nations to settle in the UK between 1948 and 1971, changing British society for ever.

The HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948, bringing 802 Caribbean citizens to help rebuild postwar Britain

Though many in the museum sector will know this story, it isn’t as widely appreciated as it should be among the wider public. And this year’s Windrush Day celebration brings with it a growing sense of urgency; time is running out to capture the testimony not only of that first generation of immigrants, for whom this is likely to be the last major anniversary many will be around to celebrate, but of their UK-born children, who are now approaching their sixties and seventies, and have different but equally significant stories to tell.

Major event

Campaigners hope to use the spotlight of the 75th anniversary – a year-long commemoration starting in June – to establish Windrush Day as a major annual event, on a par with the US’s Martin Luther King Day, which will celebrate the contribution of the Windrush generation and other migrants to British life.

Last year, historian and social commentator Patrick Vernon, working with the thinktank British Futures, convened the Windrush 75 Network to ensure the anniversary has a high profile across the UK. It has been a struggle to get to this point, says Vernon.

Though the occasion has been celebrated for many years, the UK government didn’t recognise Windrush Day as an official national commemoration until 2019, in the wake of the scandal that saw hundreds of Windrush-generation immigrants and their descendants wrongfully detained, deported or denied NHS care by the Home Office.

A black and white portrait of Patrick Vernon

“The government’s hands had to be forced to acknowledge this,” says Vernon. “But, ironically, more people know about Windrush as a result of the scandal than anything that’s been done in the past 50 or 60 years.”

That scandal, as well as the greater awareness around anti-racism and Black representation that followed the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, means the national picture has changed significantly since Windrush’s 70th anniversary commemorations in 2018.

Vernon has seen a significant uptick in Windrush-related work by museums and galleries in the past five years – but much more still needs to be done. “It’s mostly short-term projects linked to limited funding,” he says.

What is needed now, according to Vernon, is a coordinated, nationwide drive to collect Windrush heritage for a national repository. He likens the significance of this to the collection of testimonies of formerly enslaved people in America’s Deep South in the 1930s, which are now a crucial resource for historians.

Purposeful project

Vernon is also working on an ambitious project to raise the anchor of the Empire Windrush – visible in many Windrush Day photographs – from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, where it has lain since the ship caught fire and sank in 1954. If the initiative is successful in securing corporate funding, a national competition will be held to determine where the anchor should be displayed.

Vernon emphasises that Windrush 75 will be a 12-month celebration. “I want to do a call out to all museums: it’s not too late to organise something,” he says. But it’s clear that, due to neglect of the subject over the years and the underlying racial bias behind this, there are significant gaps in Windrush heritage in museums. This is why, in July 2022, a team gathered to develop the new National Windrush Museum.

The museum project is being led by Les Johnson, an academic and consultant who was born in Jamaica and was part of the second wave of migrants from the Caribbean to arrive in Britain in the 1960s. The project is supported by Mindsets + Missions, a new learning and grants programme led by the Liminal Space in partnership with the Museums Association and the Association for Science and Discovery Centres.

The National Windrush Museum will be built around a manifesto of “doing museums differently”, says Johnson, who hopes it will have a transformational impact across the sector. One of the issues with the treatment of Windrush is that it’s often compartmentalised as Black or Caribbean history, rather than being seen as an integral part of British history, he says.

Windrush Community Choir at the National Maritime Museum in 2019 Royal Museums Greenwich

Johnson believes cultural experience should be viewed as a series of overlapping prisms, as opposed to being divided into clear-cut categories. “If you put those prisms together, you get an interesting multi-dimensional manifestation of experience,” he says. “This is what we need to change in the museum sector – from a very pedantic way of interpreting culture to something much more expressive and inclusive.”

The museum responds to theories about culture and power outlined by thinkers such as the American civil rights activist Malcolm X, who explored the impact of dispossession and slavery on Black cultural identity.

“If you don’t have cultural assets, you don’t have power – there’s no identity,” says Johnson. “That’s why museums are important. Without them, everything is kind of transient; there’s a chasm between generations.”

Loss of heritage

These theories crystallise a wider feeling among the Windrush community about the loss of their heritage, says the museum’s director Denize Ledeatte. “Most of us on the museum board have lost both parents,” she says. “That tends to galvanise your focus: when someone is gone you look at what’s left. And you realise that outside your own lived experience, there’s nothing left.”

The places and spaces occupied by the Windrush pioneers are disappearing and their achievements are being forgotten, says Ledeatte. “You realise that the void is not just in your mind. When you build a picture, you see that it’s a very big hole.”

The loss of culture and heritage has had pragmatic, as well as emotional, implications. The Home Office destroyed thousands of Windrush landing cards in 2010, rather than offering them to an archive – a dereliction of duty that had disastrous consequences for those affected by the Windrush scandal.

Although institutions such as the Windrush Foundation and Black Cultural Archives have preserved Windrush history, the new museum’s founders hope that having a dedicated space for both tangible and intangible culture will provide a sense of continuity to the Windrush generation’s successors.

“It’s not just looking at academic theory, it’s putting it into practice,” says Ledeatte. “It will be a moving, living, breathing thing.” But it’s clear that one museum cannot do this on its own: the entire UK sector has a responsibility to keep this vital chapter in British history alive for future generations.

The International Windrush Festival and Rewind & Remix Festival, run by the National Windrush Museum, will take place at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre on 23-24 June

Windrush 75 events
  • Tilbury Docks in Essex, where the HMT Empire Windrush docked on 22 June 1948, will host a major programme of events.
  • London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is staging a season of displays, talks and workshops telling the stories of the Windrush generation and its legacy. The programme will run throughout the summer.
  • Mansfield Museum is staging an exhibition, Windrush: It Runs Through Us, that will explore how Windrush migrants shaped the Nottinghamshire town.
  • The National Maritime Museum is using new research into passengers onboard boats travelling from the Caribbean to the UK between 1942 and 1962 to help visitors find their Windrush connection. Two celebratory events will take place on 22 and 24 June.
  • Patrick Vernon will host a screening of his documentary, A Charmed Life, which tells the story of the Jamaican-born RAF pilot Eddie Martin Noble, at the British Film Institute in London on 24 June.


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