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The Lampedusa Cross, currently touring English museums, is a symbol of refugees’ plight

The Lampedusa Cross, Francesco Tuccio, 2015, wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

It is a simple construction, made from the remnants of a boat carrying refugees wrecked near the Italian island of Lampedusa, close to the coast of Tunisia, but with it the Lampedusa Cross symbolises the plight of refugees and carries poignant messages of kindness, community and the indifference they face.

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 resulting in the death of 311 people, fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in Europe.

We hope that this exhibition will cause visitors to reflect on the complex and interconnected issues surrounding migration

Tony Butler, Executive Director, Derby Museums

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 – one of which the British Museum acquired in 2015, simply made from two pieces of brightly painted wood fitted together.

Jill Cook, Keeper, Department of Britain, Europe & Prehistory at the British Museum, wrote in a blog in June 2021 that the museum had commissioned one of the crosses and she was in the process of arranging how to bring it over to the UK when Tuccio decided to post it.

Globalisation of indifference

“[He] realised that sending these crosses of upcycled wood to museums, churches and community organisations worldwide might help shake people from what Pope Francis called the ‘globalisation of indifference’”, she wrote.

“They serve as a reminder of all the histories that are lost and of the thousands of people who are not otherwise commemorated, as well as a major moment in world history.”

Spotlight Loan

Now the Lampedusa Cross is part of a British Museum Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge touring eight towns and cities in England, arriving at the half-way point at Derby Museum and Art Gallery last week.

Tony Butler, Executive Director at Derby Museums, says, “We are honoured to host this British Museum Spotlight Loan here in Derby. Across Derby and the wider region, many organisations collaborate to welcome and provide ongoing support to people fleeing violence, war and persecution.

“Together they aim to make Derby a welcoming place of safety for all, a city of sanctuary, helping refugees and those seeking asylum feel at home while they navigate their new lives and valuing the friendship and many skills they bring.

“We hope that this exhibition will cause visitors to reflect on the complex and interconnected issues surrounding migration and to remember each person has their own story to tell.”

Fragile vessels

Dark Water, Burning World, Issam Kourbaj, 2016, repurposed bicycle steel mudguards, extinguished matches and clear resin © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Alongside the cross will be a display of 12 tiny boats from Syrian-born Issam Kourbajʼs series Dark Water, Burning World, 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.

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’.

European migrant crisis

As the Spotlight Loan points out, the Lampedusa disaster was one of the first examples of the European migrant crisis and brought the catastrophic journeys of refugees and migrants into the worldwide spotlight as they crossed 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. By which point the islanders of Lampedusa had already begun to rescue those in peril.

They islanders shared resources to rescue, feed, clothe, comfort survivors and bury those washed up on the shore. This kindness altered their formally idyllic life and challenged them with difficult and unwelcome changes.

The British Museum stated that: “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.”

Raging debate

The deaths in Europe continue and the debate still rages between governments on how to react to this migrant crisis. In November, 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel – the deadliest incident since the crisis began. It comes at a time when the UK Government passed its Second Reading of its Nationality and Borders Bill in the House of Commons.

The Bill has been criticised by the UNHCR as undermining the 1951 Refugee Convention of which the UK is a signatory. The Bill’s stated aims are making the immigration system fairer and more efficient while being strict on illegal immigrants and people smuggling. However, there are many controversial clauses in the Bill, some of which would criminalise asylum claims made by undocumented people and the actions of anyone taking part in refugee rescue missions in the Channel.

The Bill will now be debated in the House of Lords at its Second Reading stage on 5 January 2022 and if approved will become law.

In light of this extremely perilous situation, the British Museum says the aim of the Lampedusa Cross tour is to engaging audiences on the identity, belonging and sharing of our world with the display encouraging the exchange of stories among local communities, including those with migrant experiences of their own.

Ethical and practical challenges

The tour also broaches the ethical and practical challenges presented by mass movements of people, and on how Europe has recently responded to refugees and migrants.

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.”

The Spotlight Loan is part of the British Museum’s National Programmes, bringing objects from the Museum to audiences around the UK for free.

Connect, tell stories and reconcile

The Lampedusa Cross on display at Coventry Cathedral. Photograph by Adele Mary Reed

The Lampedusa Cross was first displayed as part of the tour at Coventry Cathedral in May as a feature of the UK City of Culture programme. The city of Coventry understands the symbolism of such objects and their power to connect, tell stories and reconcile.

On 14 November 1940 Coventry’s St Michael’s Cathedral was destroyed (during a Luftwaffe air raid and the next morning provost, Richard Howard had three large nails from the wooden roof truss joined together to make a cross. Replicas were made and sent to war-damaged places around the world.

In 1987 the city presented a Cross of Nails to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin as a symbol of peace and forgiveness. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church itself was left in ruins by an allied air raid in November 1943, and like its Coventry counterpart, a new church was built in the 1960s alongside the ruin.

Sign of loss but also hope

“There is great resonance between these two crosses, both formed from destruction, both signs of loss but also of hope,” said Dean of Coventry, Very Reverend John Witcombe.

The British Museum Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge will be on display at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 6 March 2022.

From there the exhibition will head to Ipswich Museum between 11 March – 12 June 2022, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from 18 June – 18 September 2022, Rochester Cathedral from 22 September – 27 November 2022 and finishing at Shire Hall in Dorchester from 1 December 2022 – 26 February 2023.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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