Island to Island

Hackney Museum is a local history museum, whose focus is to explore the history of migration to the borough. Every year Hackney Museum launches a Black History Season from October to January, consisting of an exhibition, public and education programmes. In 2017, as their museum educator, I used my practice of embodied storytelling for their exhibition, Island to Island which formed part of their Black History season. I led 42 workshops for over 1000 local primary school children in Key Stage 2, using the exhibition’s themes. I wanted Hackney Museum to be a safer space to engage children in difficult topics of migration, discrimination and cultural differences to foster greater understanding and empathy of others. 

My workshop responded to the exhibition’s themes — representations of photographs and memories from the Caribbean. I used embodied storytelling as a learning tool to initiate conversations around racism, migration and cultural differences. Embodiment describes the knowledge gained from our lived experiences and how our bodies and emotions internalise this, providing a unique way of experiencing the world.

My workshop also commemorated 50 years of the Windrush in how this pivotal moment has shaped the cultural, social and political fabric of Britain. With the looming sentiment of  ‘Brexit’ (2016) as well as my own lived experiences as a Black Woman added an invisible politics to the stimuli used and the learning that was offered to the children. More importantly, Hackney is a multicultural borough, that has traditionally experienced years of chronic deprivation. Hackney now has one of the highest properties values within the capital, this has been attributed to the wave of gentrification within the last 15 years by mainly white middleclass people. This new group have also shifted the face of Hackney from being predominately working-class, immigrant and People of Colour to a now ‘trendy’ area. These wider social issues informed conversations had with Hackney Museum staff and added much important tension within the workshop and exhibition space. Other preparations involved the museum hosting a consultation with primary teachers who were able to feed in their ideas for the workshop’s content in relation to the national curriculum. (Figure 1)

The school workshops took place in the exhibition space and began with a narrated a story based on my grandparent’s migration to London. The children were asked to imagine they were in 1940s Jamaica and were adults packing for a life changing event. To make this feel real, I had a suitcase full of props, including a replica job advert for nurses, a blue British passport, an old film camera amongst other items. The children were selected as passengers boarding the Windrush and had to create a pose/stance which we all copied. As intersectionality informs my teaching practice, I wanted to highlight how the first wave of Caribbean migrants were mainly young men. To illuminate this point, I would initially pick boys, (before the workshop began I would ask the teacher if they were any trans children to prevent misgendering), much to the annoyance of the girls in attendance. I would then ask, ‘what do we notice about everyone I have picked so far,’ unsurprisingly the girls would highlight its all-boys, and how unfair this was! I would ask, ‘in the 1940s were women and men were treated equally?’ Mostly, the girls would say no and offered conceptual reasons as to why. I would ask whether anything have changed now?’ Again, mostly the girls would respond with answers highlighting incremental changes in society. 

The children boarded a mocked-up HMS Windrush (Figure 2) and re-enacted the journey that tens of thousands of  Caribbean’s made during the 1940-60s. To make it as experiential as possible, we physically moved from one part of the exhibition to the other. Through my narration, I explained how long it took to travel by sea (2.5 weeks) and how people felt when they first arrived in London. The children were then asked to embody the feelings of shivering, shock and excitement and coughing as many did when inhaling the thick smog! These reactions were based on my own family’s testimonies and the oral history I found in Hackney Museum’s archive. I would ask the children if there were other thoughts or feelings people may have had to help the children reflect on the complexity of migration.

In small groups, we looked at photographs of a bomb-post-war Hackney and the children had to figure out when and where these photographs were taken. The children often gave answers like ‘Africa’ or a ‘hurricane in Jamaica’ and highlights how racialised images of devastation and poverty are widely disseminated within our visual media. These photographs were shown to firstly challenge and then shift the children’s perceptions and for them to understand that these representations are not synonymous to People of Colour and the UK has also experienced similar atrocities. I asked the children, ‘how would you feel if you have travelled from the Caribbean to a London that looked like this?’ They replied ‘angry’, ‘devastated’ and ‘wasted journey.’ I asked, ‘why would people want to move here? Most children guessed correctly, with responses like, ‘for work,’ ‘an adventure’ or ‘for a new life.’ However, some common answers included ‘because they were slaves’, ‘or to be servants,’ again highlighting racialised stereotypes of Black people. I explained that Caribbean people were invited to the UK to help rebuild the nation because the Second World War had destroyed the country and a lot of children of various ethnicities were unaware of this. I also played the song, ‘London is the Place for me’ by the Trinidadian calypsonian Lord Kitchener, who penned it whilst aboard the Windrush. Most children were already familiar with the song because they had heard it in the Paddington Bear movie. I asked the children to listen to the lyrics and what we thought the song was about, I also encouraged the children to dance as a way to ‘feel’ the song’s message. In the 42 classes I worked with, most of the children asked what the phrase ‘mother country’ meant. This provided a good opportunity to discuss the British Empire and its connection to Caribbean (and other post-colonial) migration. Children in years 5 and above (including some year 4s) were able to understand the nuances of this and for some children of Colour they were able to directly connect this to their own biographies. In hindsight, the sharing of this history precedes the ‘Windrush scandal’ of 2018 and would have added a very different trajectory to the workshop had it been facilitated a year later.

The last part of the workshop involved dramatisation, the children were split into small groups and were given oral histories by Caribbean residents who had moved to Hackney. The children had to read and re-enact these testimonies creating a short drama piece. Most of these sources detailed racist experiences, ranging from direct to indirect discrimination regarding employment and housing. After each group dramatised their oral history, I facilitated a dialogue where the audience had to ‘decode’ what they had seen and how they felt about it. The ‘actors’ would share their ‘character’s’ feelings/thoughts when debriefing their dramatisation. These activities were designed to deepen the children’s understanding of racism by physically and emotionally embodying particular experiences. This made the learning much more impactful as they were able to empathise with the stories and issues of discrimination and enabled them to understand how historical and contemporary racism are interconnected.        


Embodied storytelling and experiential learning can be an incredibly powerful tool to unearth internalised bodily and thought processes regarding racial dominance. My workshops explored if embodied practices can be used to challenge racial dominance. I believe Hackney Museum and I were successful in doing so, this was made clear in the positive feedback I received from teachers and even some parents. I remember a moment had with a white mother who wanted to discuss racism with her mixed-heritage daughter, she initially felt apprehensive to do so but increased in confidence after attending my workshop. One of the other ways in which the team measured the workshop’s impact was through evaluation forms. The feedback complied were very positive by both children and staff and some learning included, ‘why England needed help from Jamaica,’ ‘how much trouble people have been through,’ or ‘how people found London significantly different to home.’ After each exhibition, Hackney Museum produces a teaching resource to ensure learning can be continued post exhibition and to be embedded within the classroom.

I believe it is important that we empower children to unlearn dominant behaviours, embodiment is just one of many tools we can use. I also observed that whilst Hackney Museum staff are clearly committed to antiracism, they were mostly an all-white team, which is very representative of the museum sector. In our evaluative conversations, I shared this insight with the team. We discussed the importance of having non-white members of staff or volunteers beyond their Black History season and what this could mean for all children. This led to some possible actions the team could take about increasing the representations of People of Colour within their workforce. I believe this is absolutely crucial in order to achieve a future society for social justice.

Janine Francois, Freelancer
Island to Island Creative Practitioner