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Lampedusa cross to go on display at People’s History Museum

29 April 2021

Part of British Museum Spotlight Loan, Crossings: community and refuge

British Museum Spotlight Loan, Crossings community and refuge, left to right - Issam Kourbaj b. 1963 Dark Water Burning World 2016, repurposed bicycle steel mudguards extinguished matches and clear resin, Issam Kourbaj, The Lampedusa cross, Francesco Tuccio, 2016, wood.© Trustees of the British Museum. Dark Water Burning World 2016 © Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of artist Issam Kourbaj

On Saturday 29 May 2021 (until Sunday 5 September 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.  The display will feature the Lampedusa cross, made from remnants of a boat carrying refugees wrecked near the Italian island of Lampedusa, close to the coast of Tunisia.  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.

Alongside the cross will be a display of twelve tiny boats from Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbajʼs series 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).

Crossings: community and refuge will be at People’s History Museum until Sunday 5 September 2021, when it will then visit venues in Hastings, Derby, Ipswich, Bristol and Rochester until November 2022 as part of the British Museum’s National Programmes, bringing objects from the British Museum’s collection to audiences around the UK for free.

When People’s History Museum reopens on Wednesday 19 May 2021 it will be with new opening hours; Wednesday to Sunday, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.  The museum and its exhibitions are free to visit with a suggested donation of £5.  Visitor bookings will open on Friday 30 April 2021, with all the details here.  To find out about visiting the museum, its full exhibitions and events programme based both at the museum and online visit, and you can keep up to date with the latest news by signing up to receive PHM’s e-newsletter, subscribing to the blog, or following the museum on social media on Twitter @PHMMcr, Facebook @PHMMcr, and Instagram @phmmcr.



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Notes to editors:

About People’s History Museum (PHM)
People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester is the national museum of democracy, telling the story of its development in Britain: past, present, and future.  The museum provides opportunities for all people to learn about, be inspired by and get involved in ideas worth fighting for; ideas such as equality, social justice, co-operation, and a fair world for all.  PHM offers a powerful programme with varied themes; 2018 looked at representation and commemorated 100 years since the first women and all men won the right to vote in Britain, in 2019 the focus was on protest to mark the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, the 2020-2021 programme is on the theme of migration and 2022 will explore disabled people’s rights and activism.  Previous winner of Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award.

We are hugely grateful for the generosity of our funders who have supported People’s History Museum (PHM) during our period of closure and to reopen safely:

Arts Council England, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Here for Culture, Manchester City Council and The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

About Arts Council England (ACE)
PHM is an Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio Organisation (NPO).  The work of PHM is supported using public funding by ACE, the national development body for arts and culture across England, working to enrich people’s lives.  ACE support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to visual art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections.  Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us.  In short, it makes life better.  Between 2018 and 2022, ACE will invest £1.45 billion of public money from government and an estimated £860 million from The National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.

A British Museum Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge will be on display:

  • People’s History Museum, Manchester   29 May – 5 September 2021
  • Hastings Museum and Art Gallery   10 September – 5 December 2021
  • Derby Museum and Art Gallery   10 December 2021 – 6 March 2022
  • Ipswich Art Gallery   11 March – 12 June 2022
  • M Shed, Bristol   18 June – 18 September 2022
  • Rochester Cathedral   22 September – 27 November 2022


For more information on the cross, see this Objects of Crisis episode where Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer chats with playwright and trustee of the Museum Pat Cumper about the Lampedusa cross and the act of compassion in the midst of crisis that brought it into being:

The British Museum’s National Programmes
The British Museum has a national presence, working with hundreds of partner organisations across the UK each year through its wide ranging National Programmes activity.  This includes single object Spotlight Loan tours, touring exhibitions, Partnership Galleries, as well as both short term and long term loans, with the lead support of the Dorset Foundation in memory of Harry M Weinrebe.  In 2019/2020, over 2,800 objects were loaned to 105 venues in the UK, reaching 10 million people outside London.  National Programmes also facilitates knowledge exchange programmes and trainee schemes to help young people to break into the museum profession.  The Museum will continue to develop partnerships across the UK as part of its commitment to sharing the collection as widely as possible.

Issam Kourbaj
Issam Kourbaj (born 1963) comes from a background of fine art, architecture and theatre design.  He was born in Suweida, Syria, and trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, the Repin Institute of Fine Arts and Architecture in Leningrad (St Petersburg), Russia and at Wimbledon School of Art, London.  Since 1990, he has lived and worked in Cambridge, where he has been artist-in-residence, a Bye-Fellow (2007–2011) and a lecturer in Art, at Christʼs College at the University of Cambridge.  His work has been widely exhibited and collected; most recently by an addition to the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.  Since 2011, Kourbaj has been dedicated to raising awareness and money for projects and aid in Syria through several exhibitions, installations and performances in the UK and abroad.

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