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.
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.
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.