The Lampedusa cross, made from remnants of a boat carrying refugees wrecked near the Italian island of Lampedusa, close to the coast of Tunisia is to go display in Manchester.

The cross carries poignant messages about kindness, community and the indifference faced by many refugees, and will form part of a programme of events that explore the theme of migration at the national museum of democracy throughout 2021.

A British Museum Spotlight Loan, Crossings: community and refuge will be exhibited at People’s History Museum (PHM) as it begins its first UK tour.

Alongside the cross will be a display of twelve tiny boats from Syrianborn artist Issam Kourbajʼsseries Dark Water, Burning World, made from repurposed bicycle mudguards tightly packed with burnt matches, to represent huddled groups of people and the fragile vessels used by refugees to make their perilous voyages across the Mediterranean. Seeking to evoke the plight of Syrians, these were made by Kourbaj as a response to the ongoing tragedy in Syria.

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’.  Inspired by Syrian antiquities depicting sea vessels that date from the 5th century BC, the boats convey the fear and exhaustion 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.

In October 2013, an overcrowded boat carrying 466 migrants from Somalia and Eritrea caught fire, capsized and sank near Lampedusa’s coast. At that time, there was no official maritime rescue service.  311 lives, fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in Europe, were lost. Moved by the plight of survivors whom he met in his church, the island’s carpenter, Francesco 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 this cross in 2015, simply made from two pieces of brightly painted wood fitted together.

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, by which the Italian navy rescued 150,000 people from the straits of Sicily. The islanders of Lampedusa did not wait for official authority or funding to rescue those in peril on the sea. They shared resources to rescue, feed, clothe, comfort survivors and bury those washed up on the shore. Their kindness altered their formally idyllic life and challenged them with difficult and unwelcome changes. In this way, the cross invites discussion about the stresses of learning to live cooperatively. It 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. 

Engaging audiences in questions of identity, belonging and sharing our world, the display will be located in Main Gallery Two of People’s History Museum, where visitors will also be able to see the 2021 Banner Exhibition, which focuses on different aspects of migration.

Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer says, “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.”

Jenny Mabbott, Head of Collections & Engagement at People’s History Museum, says, Crossings: community and refuge will be an important focal point for the discussions, events and interventions that will be accompanying People’s History Museum’s migration programme in the coming months.  This is such a symbolic object that stands not only as a powerful reminder of this great tragedy and of the many times that those desperate for a better future have attempted similar journeys, but also, because of the generosity of spirit shown by the people of Lampedusa, that there is hope.  In a year when the museum is exploring the events, outcomes,challenges and opportunities of migration in many different ways, there could not be a better time for the Lampedusa cross to visit the national museum of democracy.

Artist Issam Kourbaj says, “Lead was the first material I experimented with when making my boats. I used it for its density, as a response to the many tragedies of sinking boats in the Mediterranean, but also the ancient miniature model ship carrying three goddesses that inspired this piece was made from lead too. Soon after I was drawn to bicycle mudguards, which are designed to protect from the mud, yet sadly many Syrians and many others were not guarded by the flimsy boats, lead-like, that they were so desperate to take to escape the destruction. Spent matches speak about the people of the boats, with burnt parts to reflect the trauma that those women, children and men carry with them, while water-like resin holds these burnt matches together, just as we all bond, hold and support each other in desperate times.”

Crossings: community and refuge will be the subject of a Radical Late event held by PHM on Thursday 10 June 2021, which will include a talk from artist Issam Kourbaj about his work Dark Water, Burning World.  Alongside him guitarist and songwriter Ewan McLennan will perform a collection of his songs, including Lampedusa.  The event will take place online, with tickets bookable in advance here, priced at £6, £2 and free.  The event is suitable for ages 16+ (under 18s must have an accompanying adult).


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