The British public has been invited to reflect on the challenges presented by the current refugee crisis, as the Lampedusa cross, made from the wreckage of a migrant boat that sank in the Mediterranean tragedy, is set to tour the UK for the first time, writes Nick Benson.
A cross, made from the wreckage of a refugee boat that capsized in the Mediterranean killing more than 300 migrants, is set to tour the UK later this year amid hope that it will encourage discussion and reflection on the plight of refugees.
The tour will touch on the ethical and practical challenges presented by the mass movements of people and on how Europe has recently responded to refugees and migrants.
The cross, acquired by the British Museum in London five years ago, carries poignant messages about kindness, community and the indifference faced by many refugees.
As part of the British Museum Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge tour, the Lampedusa cross will visit Manchester, Hastings, Derby, Ipswich, Bristol and Rochester, where it will be free to view in various venues, including museums, art galleries and cathedrals.
It is one of a number of crosses made by Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter on the Italian island of Lampedusa, since the October 2013 boat tragedy in which an overcrowded boat carrying 466 migrants from Somalia and Eritrea caught fire, capsized and sank near the coast.
At that time, there was no official maritime rescue service and 311 people, fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in Europe, drowned.
Moved by the plight of survivors whom he met in his church, Tuccio made an individual cross for each person. Acting as a mark of the 155 survivors’ salvation from the sea and their hope for the future, the cross also reflects the fate of many migrants.
Tuccio also made larger crosses that he gifted as a plea for discussion about community and responsibility – it is in this context that the British Museum acquired its cross in 2015, simply made from two pieces of brightly painted wood fitted together.
Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, pointed out that the wood of the cross is “a reminder of the passage, not only of these vulnerable refugees who staked everything on the boats being able to safely transport them, but of the human beings throughout history who have sought refuge on similar perilous journeys”.
“I hope visitors around the UK will connect with the poignancy of the cross and be able to reflect upon the ongoing disruption, upheaval and hope that it symbolises,” he said.
Curator Jill Cook said the cross invites discussion of the varied reactions to “one of the great tragedies of our time”.
“The Lampedusa cross reminds us of all the histories that are lost and of the thousands of people who are not otherwise remembered. The wood with its paint blistered by the sun and smelling of salt, sea, and suffering embodies a crisis of our times, as well as hope,” she said.
“It is an artefact shaped by tragedy that symbolises those who have nothing and desperately seek to share in a better future.”
The Lampedusa disaster was one of the first examples of the European migrant crisis and the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees and migrants as they seek to cross from unstable regions in Africa and the Middle East into Europe.
It led to Operation Mare nostrum – Our Sea – in 2013, through which the Italian Navy has rescued 150,000 people from the straits around Sicily.
The islanders of Lampedusa did not wait for officials to rescue those in peril on the sea. They shared resources with survivors and comforted them even as their dead were being washed ashore.
In this way, the cross marks an extraordinary moment in European history and stands witness to the kindness of the people of Lampedusa and as a reference to the ongoing migrant plight today.
Alongside the cross will be a display of 12 tiny boats from Syrian-born Issam Kourbajʼ’s series Dark Water, Burning World. All are made from repurposed bicycle mudguards tightly packed with burnt matches to represent the fragile vessels used by refugees to make their perilous voyages across the Mediterranean.
The boats have recently been nominated as the 101st Object in the British Museum and BBC Radio 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, a 10th anniversary programme of which was recently broadcast to reflect on the major issues which have affected the world in the past decade.
Inspired by Syrian antiquities depicting sea vessels that date from the 5th century BC, the boats convey the fear of the crossing, and the trepidatious uncertainty of survival.
In utilising cheap and discarded materials that might otherwise go to waste as the basis for the artwork, Kourbaj represents the need for refugees to use what they can freely acquire following separation from their homeland, while urging the global community to find value in everything and everyone, no matter how humble their origins.
Curator Ms Cook said Koubraj’s little boats “touchingly complement” the Lampedusa cross in the display.
The display will be accompanied by powerful and engaging programming that ties to these themes at each venue. Partner venues will encourage the sharing of stories among local communities, including those with migrant experiences of their own.
The Spotlight Loan will visit the People’s History Museum, Manchester (29th May-5th September); Hastings Museum and Art Gallery (10th September-5th December); Derby Museum and Art Gallery (10th December- 6th March 2022); Ipswich Art Gallery (11th March-12th June 2022); M Shed, Bristol (18th June-18th September 2022) and finishes at Rochester Cathedral (22nd September-27th November 2022).
• The tour is supported by the Dorset Foundation in memory of Harry M Weinrebe. For more information, see: www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/crossings-community-and-refuge
Picture: Pope Francis blesses one of the Lampedusa crosses during his weekly audience at the Vatican in 2014. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters).