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Thematic Collecting

@ Manchester Museum

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December 2016

Collecting Life: a Refugee’s Life Jacket from Lesvos IV – a Visit to Pikpa Camp

Continuing the series of blog posts telling the story of my visit to the Greek island of Lesvos in December 2016 to collect a refugee’s life jacket for Manchester Museum…

Entrance to Pikpa with sign made of life jackets
Entrance to Pikpa refugee camp with sign saying ‘Safe Passage’ made of life jackets

After my visit to Kara Tepe, I visited a camp for vulnerable refugees at Pikpa with Dr Yulie Tzirou of the University of the Aegean. The first thing you see on arrival is a line of life jackets tied to the gate bearing  letters that say ‘Safe Passage’ and  this is also stamped on the bags made from recycled materials at Mosaik. Fortunately, on this occasion I was allowed to take photos and I interviewed some of the staff working there and saw the chalets where the refugees live. I asked Yulie for permission to take the photos you see in this blog and no photos or films were taken showing refugees out of respect for their dignity. Pikpa is much smaller than Kara Tepe, and Yulie  referred to it several times  as a community.

Accommodation made from recycled boats at Pikpa
Accommodation made from recycled boats at Pikpa

Refugees could come and go as they wished, there was a kitchen, communal cooking and eating facilities and heated accommodation, some of it made from recycled boats abandoned on the Lesvos coast. The refugees had a garden and they composted waste material from the kitchens. I interviewed Yulie and a volunteer called Imelda who organises classes for the children. Imelda told me how important it was that the children should have order and stability in their lives after everything that they had gone through. There was a happy and welcoming atmosphere in the camp.

Inside a refugee family's chalet
Inside a refugee family’s chalet at Pikpa

I came away from Pikpa full of the greatest admiration for the humanitarian work undertaken by the volunteers. Whilst there is an agreement with Turkey to patrol the borders more closely and a reciprocal scheme to take refugees from camps in Turkey in return for taking refugees from Lesvos, refugees are still arriving on the island, albeit in much smaller numbers than last year. The new arrivals need help and support. Time will tell whether the agreement continues to hold but if it breaks down the island may face the large numbers of refugees making the crossing from Turkey as happened in 2015.

 

Refugee exhibition in Mytilene (courtesy of Dr Kostas Arvenitis, University of Manchester)
Refugee exhibition in Mytilene (courtesy of Dr Kostas Arvenitis, University of Manchester)

Now that the life jacket is in the Museum  we are making plans to put it on display together with bags made from recycled life jackets. The Museum hopes to be able to host a temporary exhibition about the refugee crisis in Lesvos during Refugee Week 2017 (19th to 25th June). Students from the  University of Manchester’s Art Gallery and Museum Studies (AGMS) course will work on the exhibition, which is inspired by an exhibition about the refugee crisis shown in Mytilene and Athens. At the time of writing it is also hoped to work on this project with students from the University of the Aegean.

Looking across to Turkey from Lesvos
Looking across to Turkey from Lesvos

In this modest way we hope to engage our visitors about the collecting life project theme of migration. Through it we will tell visitors about the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis and hopefully generate interest and support for the work of the volunteers and organisations trying to help refugees. Director of the Manchester Museum, Nick Merriman, wrote in January’s  Museum’s Journal that the Brexit vote had revealed ‘a vein of intolerance and xenophobia that we hoped had been consigned to the past’. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote it is now important more than ever that we do not lose sight of the  values of compassion, tolerance and mutual respect that are enshrined within our museums and art galleries. If the collecting life project  also gives a boost to acquiring contemporary and topical objects for museum collections, then so much the better.

This collecting life visit would not have been possible without the help and support of a number of individuals and institutions: the Mayor of Municipality of Mytilene, Mr Gallinos, and his Senior Advisor, Mr Andriotis; Dr Evi Sampanikou, Dr Yulie Tzirou, Dr Katarina Nikolarea and Prof Dmitri Papageorgiou at the University of the Aegean; Martina at Mosaik; and last but not least Dr Areti Damala at the University of Strathclyde who very kindly facilitated the initial contact with staff at the University of the Aegean. To all of the above and all the other Greek people and refugees I met on my visit to Lesvos, I’d like to express my sincerest thanks and those of the Manchester Museum.

Read about the installation of the refugee’s life jacket in the following blog post:

https://thematiccollectingmanchester.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/refugees-life-jacket-on-display-at-manchester-museum/

 

 

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Collecting Life: a Refugee’s Life Jacket from Lesvos III – Mixed Fortunes near Mytilene

Continuing the blog posts telling the story of my visit to the Greek island of Lesvos in December 2016 to collect a refugee’s life jacket for Manchester Museum…

The writer at Mosaik with bags made from recycled life jackets
The writer at Mosaik with bags made from recycled life jackets

After visiting the workshop at Mosaik in Mytilene where life jackets are recycled and made into bags, I went to the refugee camp at Kara Tepe. This turned out to be a frustrating experience because although I had an official permit, I was not allowed to visit the camp.  I learnt later that there had been some sort of disturbance and that I’d arrived at a difficult time.

Katerina Elarinea with Finding Families

Katerina Nikolarea and the  Restoring Family Links initiative

I withdrew and sought the help of my new friends at the University of the Aegean, especially Katarina Nikolarea, who volunteers for the Mytilene branch of the Hellenic Red Cross. She very kindly arranged for me to visit Kara Tepe the following day. I also  interviewed Katarina and she told me how the ordinary people of Lesvos had responded generously and spontaneously in the early days of the crisis by giving the refugees clothes and shoes, and food and water. Prices were discounted in shops to help refugees. This story often doesn’t get told. The help given by ordinary Greek people on the island is even more laudable given the economic problems that Greece  has experienced in recent years.

Katarina told me about how her local branch of Hellenic Red Cross was helping  refugees to keep in touch with one another. The Restoring Family Links initiative helps refugees to find and contact family members and loved ones. I learnt that families and friends are often split up by the people traffickers in order to cram as many people into the boats as possible. Refugees sometimes have no idea whether their nearest and dearest have even survived the crossing so this is a really important thing to do.

Patrol vessel in Mytilene harbour
Patrol vessel in Mytilene harbour

At the height of the crisis last year (2015) up to 6,000 refugees were arriving on the beaches of Lesvos every day,  and this on an island with a Greek population of only 87,000. Refugees were sleeping rough on the streets and the island’s authorities were largely left to cope on their own to begin with. Since the signing of an agreement with Turkey earlier in 2016 the numbers of refugees have fallen dramatically but there are still camps with people either waiting for their papers to travel to countries in mainland Europe or to be returned to Turkey. They have the right of appeal and relatively few have returned to Turkey. Vessels from Frontex patrol the straits between Lesvos and Turkey.

The following day I succeeded in visiting the camp at Kara Tepe but sadly I was not allowed to take photographs nor film any interviews. I took some toys to give to the children in the camp. A guide showed me round. It was well-managed, tidy and comfortable, with a range of facilities for the guests as she called them and everyone seemed content in the circumstances. In the middle of the camp there is a monument built by the refugees using recycled material from boats they’d used to cross to Lesvos. My guide was not at liberty to answer questions that were considered sensitive, such as how many guests there  were at Kara Tepe. I certainly wanted to respect the dignity of the refugees but I feel that we lost an opportunity to do some good in raising the profile of the refugees as part of the collecting life project at Manchester Museum.  I was very grateful for the opportunity to see Kara Tepe and I naturally respect the wishes of the authorities in protecting the dignity of the people staying there but it means I was unable to make any visual record of my visit.

All was not lost, however, because later in the afternoon I visited a camp run by volunteers for vulnerable refugees at Pikpa. Again my visit there came about because of the good will of staff the University of the Aegean, to whom I am very grateful.

This, the third instalment of the series of blog posts about my visit to Lesvos in December 2016, will be continued tomorrow with an account of a visit to the refugee camp at Pikpa.

Collecting Life: a Refugee’s Life Jacket from Lesvos II – Visiting Mosaik

Continuing the blog posts telling the story of my visit to the Greek island of Lesvos in December 2016 to collect a refugee’s life jacket for Manchester Museum…

Centre for refugees and workshop where life jackets are recycled at Mosaik in Mytilene
Centre for refugees and workshop where life jackets are recycled at Mosaik in Mytilene

After taking receipt of life jacket or ‘sosivio’ from the Town Hall in Mytiline in Lesvos,   I visited a centre for refugees called Mosaik  with Dr Yulie Tzirou, a lecturer at the University of the Aegean, to see how life jackets are recycled to make into bags. There I met Martina, the Greek lady in charge of the workshop.

So many refugees have made the crossing to Lesvos and abandoned their life jackets on landing that piles upon piles of life jackets and inflatable boats have accumulated on the shores of the island. Both Greek volunteers and refugees work at the centre. There are also creative activities and language lessons, and access to legal advice. The refugees now on Lesvos can’t leave the island until their claims for asylum are processed with takes a long time. Without centres such as Mosaik there would be relatively few opportunities for them.

Recycling life jackets at Mosaik
Recycling life jackets at Mosaik

The sheer number of life jackets that have been abandoned on the island represents an environmental problem on a massive scale and one that the Deputy Mayor in charge of cleansing, Mr Kantzanos, has worked extremely hard to clear up. The  life jackets that were lying on the beaches were also having an impact on tourism, which is an important source of income to the island during the summer. Making the discarded life  jackets into bags helps deal with the problem and raises some money for the voluntary organisation that is trying to help the refugees.

Bags made from recycled life jackets at Mosaik
Bags made from recycled life jackets at Mosaik

In between visits to the Town Hall to collect the life jacket and to Mosaik to see recycling I found time to visit the Lesvos archaeological museum to see the beautiful Roman mosaics from the House of Menander. One shows Orpheus playing music surrounded by wild animals. Another smaller mosaic shows a large octopus stealing fish from a fishing boat. Although this is from a later period in Roman history it was  a great opportunity to take some photographs for the temporary exhibition about Pliny the Elder and Roman Natural History scheduled for 2018. The octopus, in particular, is reminiscent of the story in the Natural History about a 60lb monster that raided fish farms in the province of Baetica in Southern Spain. A fence was built to keep it out with no success (what is it with Romans and walls?) and finally it was cornered with dogs and killed and ended up on display pickled in the governor’s residence as a sort of tourist attraction.

House of Menander and Orpheus Mosaic
House of Menander and Orpheus Mosaic

The next instalment of this blog about my visit to the island of Lesvos to collect a refugee’s life jacket will be released shortly.

Collecting Life: a Refugee’s Life Jacket from Lesvos – I

Lesvos beach

A beach on the south east coast of Lesvos looking towards Mytilene

The prospect of visiting a Greek island is always an enticing one but arguably less so during the winter, and certainly not flying in low over the raging Aegean in a twin propellor aircraft, pitching and rolling and buffeted by strong winds, surrounded by fellow passengers crossing themselves. I was landing on the island of Lesvos.   My wife Christine and I had been on holiday to the island five years earlier, but that was before the refugee crisis in 2015 when literally hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq crossed the short stretch of water that separates Lesvos from Turkey.

My visit to Lesvos in December 2016 was part of Manchester Museum’s thematic collecting or collecting for life project.  Earlier in the autumn the Collections Team curators met the director, Nick Merriman, and reframed the project so that it focused more on migration that results in long-term and permanent settlement of a country or land by people, plants or animals. Lesvos attracted our interest because of the very large numbers of refugees who were going there en route to mainland Europe. This was precisely the topical issue that we wanted to cover as part of the thematic collecting or collecting for life project. The aim of the project is to reinvigorate collecting in museums by collecting thematically, particularly objects that have current significance, that will engage the public.

The crisis on Lesvos had made a personal impact on me when I saw coverage on the 6 o’clock news of a British ex pat couple, the Kempsons, helping refugees come ashore on the north coast of the island. My wife Christine and I had met Eric and Philippa Kempson six months previously  when we holidayed on the island and they invited us in for coffee. My job in December 2016 was to collect one of the life jackets or ‘sosivia’ from the Town Hall in Mytilene and to take it back to Manchester to put on display.

Interview with Dr Evi Sampanikou at the University of the Aegean
Interview with Dr Evi Sampanikou at the University of the Aegean

Prior to the visit and with the help and advice of a number of people at the University of Manchester and the University of Strathclyde I’d made contact with the University of the Aegean on Lesvos and arranged to meet Associate Professor Evi Sampanikou  and other academics to talk to them about the refugee crisis. I interviewed Prof Sampanikou standing on a large chessboard made of recycled life jackets. It is the life jacket more than any other object that symbolises the refugee crisis. I learnt that the illicit trafficking of people across the straits even has its own subtle material culture and certain nationalities favour certain colours of life jacket. Blue I discovered was popular in the initial wave of  immigration with Afghan refugees.

Later in the morning  I met the Mayor’s Senior Advisor, Mr Andriotis and interviewed him on film about the refugee crisis. He asked me to return the next day to collect a life jacket and a permit to visit the refugee camp at Kara Tepe to the north of Mytilene.

Hand over of the life jacket in the Town Hall in Mytilene by Mr Marios Andriotis, Senior Advisor to he Mayor.
Hand over of the life jacket in the Town Hall in Mytilene by Mr Marios Andriotis, Senior Advisor to he Mayor.

The following day I was on tenter hooks sitting in one of the offices in the Town Hall waiting for the life jacket to be delivered and was very  relieved when it came. We signed a form to transfer ownership to Manchester Museum and I began to think that I’d achieved what I’d set out to do…

The next instalment of this blog about my visit to the island of Lesvos to collect a refugee’s life jacket will be released shortly.

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