The British Library – Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land

The Public Programme

‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ was 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 a unique collection of literature, sound recordings, personal correspondence and official reports, the British Library explored the deeper reasons why the arrival of the Windrush became a symbol for the origins of British multiculturalism.

This exhibition asked 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’ placed 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.

Visitors learnt 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. They also had 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.

‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ also marked 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. Poet in the City commissions 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 was Leeds, where three celebrated poets of Caribbean descent – Malika Booker, Vahni Capildeo and Khadijah Ibrahim – were 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 and text courtesy of the British Library.