Three months to the day that I visited the Greek island of Lesvos, the refugee’s life jacket that I collected there has gone on display in the entrance to Manchester Museum. The life jacket is just one of hundreds of thousands of life jackets abandoned on the island by refugees, many of them fleeing the civil war in Syria. Some 500,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict and eleven 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, and tragically some have lost their lives. Nearly 100 people drowned off the coast of Lesvos in just one week in 2016.
As part of the ‘Collecting Life’ project at Manchester Museum I interviewed a Syrian man now living in Manchester, the municipal authorities in Mytilene on Lesvos, two aid workers from the camp for vulnerable refugees at Kara Tepe, the manager of a workshop where life jackets are recycled to make bags and a lecturer at the University of the Aegean. Short films of the interviews can be seen on an AV screen next to the life jacket. The interpretation includes photographs taken by photographers who kindly allowed us to use their work for free or at a discounted rate: Nikolas Giorgiou, Giannis Iliadis and Rasmus Degnbol.
We are displaying this life jacket as an example of our new approach to collecting, to address current issues. It is particularly important that Manchester Museum collect objects and interviews about current issues such as migration because our mission is to promote understanding between different cultures and to work towards a more sustainable world. Migration, we know, was an important factor affecting the outcome of the Referendum about Britain’s membership of the European Union and in the election of Donald Trump as president of the U.S.A. We hope that this work will help us to reach out to Syrian members of the community as well as other diaspora communities.
This socially-engaged work is all the more important in the aftermath of the Referendum. By doing this work of this kind the Museum aligns itself with values of compassion, tolerance and mutual respect. The Common Cause Foundation is currently working with the Museum to develop this aspect of what we do. When I attended the ‘Working Internationally in a Post Brexit World’ conference held at the Natural History Museum on 2nd March 2017 there was tremendous interest in the Museum’s life jacket project. We’d like to see how the display can showcase the compassionate values we advocate and represent.
We’d welcome any comments or thoughts you may have on the project. You can comment using social media. Share your thoughts with us using #MMLifeJacket