Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land opens at the British Library

Postcard of Empire Windrush purchased on board ship by Winston Levy (c) Andrea Levy
• Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land is an exhibition which marks 70 years since the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex carrying over a thousand Caribbean migrants to Britain

• The exhibition also marks the anniversary of the British Nationality Act, which established common citizenship and granted all British subjects the right to settle permanently in Britain

• Through literature, music, personal correspondence and official publications – from a 1940s suppressed report detailing labour protests and rebellions across the Caribbean to E.R. Braithwaite’s annotated typescript of To Sir, With Love – this free Entrance Hall Gallery exhibition will shed new light on the significance of the arrival of the Windrush, and tell a story of Caribbean people’s struggles for social recognition, self-expression and  belonging throughout history


Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land (1st June – 21st October 2018) is a free exhibition at the British Library marking 70 years since the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks on 26th June 1948, carrying over a thousand Caribbean migrants to Britain, as well as the anniversary of the British Nationality Act 1948, which established common citizenship and enabled all British subjects to settle permanently in Britain.

Using our unique collection of literature, sound recordings, personal correspondence and official reports, the British Library will be exploring the deeper reasons why the arrival of the Windrush became a symbol for the origins of British multiculturalism.

This exhibition asks where the Windrush generation came from – not simply geographically but also historically and culturally, and how they shaped British society before and after World War II. Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land will place the experiences and struggles of migrants in the mid-20th century within a larger narrative of Caribbean history and decolonisation, and explore the Windrush voyage in a broader context of migration and the cultural shifts that were taking place in British society.

Learn more about the personal stories of the Windrush generation, including that of the Jamaican feminist poet Una Marson, who became the first black woman employed by the BBC. Visitors will also have the opportunity to listen to the sounds of the Caribbean, from jazz and calypso to the speeches of Marcus Garvey and personal reflections from some of the first Caribbean nurses to join the NHS.

We will also be displaying a number of loan items as part of the exhibition, from Lambeth Archives, George Padmore Institute and Goldsmiths University, as well as loans from individuals with personal connections to the voyage, including the novelist Andrea Levy, whose father, Winston Levy, was a passenger on board the Empire Windrush.

Elizabeth Cooper, co-curator of the exhibition and curator of Latin American and Caribbean Collections at the British Library said:

“This exhibition tells a vital story, placing the experiences and struggles of Caribbean migrants in the mid-20th century within the larger historical context of decolonisation. Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land seeks to open up a conversation about the ways slavery, colonialism, and race have through history structured British identity and society – a context that is today more relevant than ever, given the recent headlines relating to the Windrush generation. It will explore the ways that culture has been fundamental to struggles for freedom and belonging.”

The British Library has also worked closely with Colin Prescod, Chair of the Institute of Race Relations, as Lead External Adviser on this exhibition, as well as working with an advisory board of external experts and academics, including Arthur Torrington and Dione McDonald from The Windrush Foundation, Omar Khan from Runnymede Trust, Professor Susheila Nasta from Queen Mary University and Makeda Coaston, an independent curator.

There will also be a broad range of events accompanying the exhibition, from a Caribbean comedy week with comedians such as Kane Brown and Athena Kugblenu, to panel discussions and talks including an evening of poetry and readings inspired by the lives of female writers from the Windrush era and a key note lecture from historian Hilary Beckles, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI). For more information, please visit www.bl.uk/whats-on

Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land also marks the start of Collections in Verse, a collaboration between Poet in the City and the British Library to establish a new approach to touring exhibitions. Over three years, Poet in the City will commission new poetry and events in Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield, Reading and Exeter libraries and community spaces that tell the story of British Library exhibitions with and for audiences outside of London.

The first stop is Leeds, where three celebrated poets of Caribbean descent - Malika Booker, Vahni Capildeo and Khadijah Ibrahim - have been commissioned to explore the legacy of Windrush in Leeds today. Inspired by Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land and embedding local stories and experiences of migration, their work will be presented in creative and ambitious library takeovers, poetry busking and public installations for Leeds audiences in March 2019.

Image - Postcard of Empire Windrush purchased on board ship by Winston Levy (c) Andrea Levy

For more information and images, please contact elsie.kinlock@bl.uk / 020 7412 7105.

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