In collecting and displaying a refugee’s life jacket, Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, is actively engaging visitors with one of the major issues of our times.

Migration is a key political topic and has been cited as a major factor in the referendum about the UK’s membership of the European Union and in the presidential elections in the United States.

Migration is also one of the central themes of Manchester Museum’s new ‘Collecting Life’ project. Bryan Sitch, Curator of Archaeology, visited the Greek island of Lesvos in December 2016 to collect a refugee’s life jacket from the Mytilene municipal authorities.

Whilst there, he recorded a number of interviews with people trying to help refugees, and in Manchester he interviewed a recent refugee from Syria about his experience of crossing the Mediterranean. The life jacket and the interviews can now be seen in the entrance to Manchester Museum.

Some 500,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict and 11 million people have been forced to leave their homes. Some refugees enter the European Union by crossing the narrow but dangerous straits between Turkey and Lesvos. Nearly 100 people drowned off the coast of Lesvos in just one week in 2016. Even more people have lost their lives trying to cross to Italy from North Africa.

The life jacket symbolises the movement of people in a uniquely evocative way and it evokes mixed responses. However, this is an environmental as well as a humanitarian issue because of the large number of plastic life jackets, inflatable vessels and outboard motors abandoned on Greek islands such as Lesvos, Chios and Cos.

Many of the lifejackets have been gathered from the beaches and some are being recycled to make into bags. Manchester Museum’s display shows two bags made in the Mosaik workshop in Mytilene on Lesvos. The proceeds from the sale of the bags are used to help refugees.

Manchester Museum are encouraging people to share their comments and responses to the refugee’s life jacket display on social media using #MMLifeJacket


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