Exhibition explores centuries-old letters from migrants

Exhibition explores centuries-old letters from migrants
Research news

Thursday 15 May 2014

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A new three-day exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum next week is set to explore an array of letters – some centuries old – from migrants who describe their experiences moving away from home to new parts of the world.

The digitised letters, which have been brought together as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project led by Coventry University in collaboration with eleven partner institutions, provide a colourful picture of life from emigrants' perspectives and show how language has changed over the years.

Visitors will be able to read extracts from the letter collections and learn the stories behind the authors' words, and can attend a free talk from renowned international migration expert Professor David Fitzpatrick on Monday 19th May, 6.30pm, in the University's Goldstein Lecture Theatre next door to the Herbert.

The exhibition is designed to appeal to visitors of all ages and backgrounds, and will be displaying extracts from letters written by emigrants of all social classes and from all corners of the world.

One moving letter from 1907 is written by Finnish emigrant August Aalto of Humboldt, California, to his friend Hilma Aerila of Laitila, Finland. Many Finnish migrants moving to the United States between 1870 and 1930 were men who arrived alone and took up dangerous work as lumbermen or miners – they often wrote back to girls in their home villages hoping to find Finnish wives.

August writes to Hilma on March 30th 1907: "No other sorrow or grief bothers me like my perpetual sorrow over you not writing to me. I have... waited for your letter as for the most precious golden treasure, but my hopes have been completely betrayed. But I will never get tired... my destiny ordained that I didn't have the means to stay in my country of birth. I had to leave for a far-away, foreign land to make a living... Would it be possible to send me your picture? It would be fun to look at it... Good bye, please feel well. Wishes your loving wandering boy."

It is intended that the digitisation project, which has seen Coventry University collaborate with a range of partners including the Immigration History Research Centre at the University of Minnesota and the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies in Omagh, Northern Ireland, will help create new ways to make historical letter collections available to the public.

Hilary Nesi, professor of English language, who is leading Coventry University's involvement in the project, said:

This is a wonderful and unique opportunity to explore some historical correspondence from migrants from all walks of life, who embarked on adventures into new parts of the world and shared their thoughts and feelings with friends and loved ones.

Quite apart from the fact that these letters offer a significant insight into things like social and demographic trends and language change and variation, they're also simply fascinating to read. I think people will be intrigued to learn about the experiences of migrants centuries ago, and this research project is aiming to make that information accessible to anyone around the world.

Images courtesy of the Immigration History Research Centre at the University of Minnesota.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. For more information visit www.ahrc.ac.uk.