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Thematic Collecting

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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.

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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.

Restoring the Geology gallery, Biddulph Grange

We recently visited the amazing Geology gallery at Biddulph Grange to chat to Daniel Atherton about its restoration and development.

Flooding and Conservation on the Somerset Levels

We recently interviewed Matthew Marshall of Somerset Wildlife Trust about their conservation work on the Somerset Levels and the vital role of water in the landscape.

National Lobster Hatchery

Rachel Webster and I recently visited the National lobster Hatchery to meet Ben Marshall and find out about their work to conserve the UK’s lobster population.

Migration & Manchester Museum

Migration: Bee Eaters on the Island of Cephalonia

 

European Bee Eater in Cephalonia
European Bee Eater in Cephalonia

Migratory birds often symbolise the passing of time and the changing of the seasons. On the island of Cephalonia off the North West coast of Greece the distinctive bubbly, piping, throaty call of the European Bee Eater announces the coming of spring.

European Bee Eater in an olive grove in Cephalonia
European Bee Eater in an olive grove in Cephalonia

This small migratory bird (it measures a little less than a foot long or less than 30cm) breeds mainly in southern Europe and in parts of northern African and western Asia. It is one of the most colourful bird species in Europe with brown and yellow upper parts, a light blue breast mostly green wings, a black stripe across the eyes and a dark long bill. Sexes are fairly alike.

 

European Bee Eater
European Bee Eater

European Bee Eaters are a really vocal species, often calling when foraging or migrating. They are often first heard during migration and then spotted in the air.

These Bee-eaters are colonial breeders and excavate their nest mainly in sandy banks, preferably near river shores. The species is also able to make its next in pastures, cultivated areas where there are trees, meadows and plains, and hillsides as long as sandy sections are available.

As expected by its scientific name, Merops apiaster, which in Greek and Latin means bee eater, the species feeds mainly on bees, wasps, and hornets. They catch their prey in flight, taking off from nearby perches . To avoid the painful sting of its prey, Bee Eaters repeatedly hit the insect on a hard surface before consuming it.

Studies have shown that the impact on bee populations at the breeding sites is small, but this can cause conflicts with bee keepers especially during migration when large congregations of bee eaters can occur in relatively small areas.

European Bee Eaters winter in Sub-Saharan Africa. That means that every year the species needs to cross the desert and in most cases the Mediterranean Sea twice a year.

Seeing the European Bee Eaters really enhanced my annual holiday in Cephalonia in May 2016.

I am most grateful to Christos Barboutis of the Greek Ornithological Society for contributing to this blog post.

 

Spaniards and Hungarians at Ribchester

Excavation inside the Roman fort at Ribchester
Excavation inside the Roman fort at Ribchester

A few days ago I had the great pleasure of visiting Ribchester Roman fort to film a thematic collecting interview about migration with Dr Duncan Sayer who is Reader in Archaeology in the Department of Forensic and Applied Science at the University of Central Lancashire. There is quite a long history of archaeological interest in Ribchester, not least because of wonderful discoveries such as the Roman cavalry helmet now in the British Museum and the tombstone of a Roman cavalryman.

Tombstone of an Asturian cavalryman
Tombstone of an Asturian cavalryman

The current excavations inside the fort made an interesting backdrop to the interview. Duncan told me about the different regiments that had been garrisoned at Ribchester during the Roman period. Soldiers from the 20th Legion  built the fort during the 70s AD to control the strategic river crossing nearby. Auxiliary cavalryman from northern Spain – the Asturians – and later Sarmatians from what is now Hungary in eastern Europe held the fort in the  2nd and 3rd centuries.

Drawing of a Sarmatian cavalryman with dragon standard from Ribchester Museum with
Drawing of a Sarmatian cavalryman with dragon standard from Ribchester Museum

When we talk about “the Roman Army” you might expect that most of the soldiers if not from Rome itself were at least Italians but this is not the case. Many auxiliary soldiers were recruited from the provinces and allied peoples who provided specialised skills, such as horse riding or archery, which the Romans valued. The auxiliaries served in the army for 25 years in return for Roman citizenship, which indicates how highly citizen rights were valued. In Manchester Museum’s archaeology collection we have an auxiliary diploma or citizenship award that was presented to a man who originally came from Syria. It was found at Ravenglass in Cumbria.

Auxiliary diploma awarded to a Syrian soldier in the Roman army
Auxiliary diploma awarded to a Syrian soldier in the Roman army

In the interview Duncan spoke about the relationships between soldiers and the local people. Although the soldiers could not be legally married they formed long-term relationships with local women and had children. When they completed their service these relationships were  formalised. Any sons wanting to follow in their fathers’ footsteps would join the legions as citizens. The Spanish and later the Hungarians may have received fresh recruits from home but over time the pattern shifted and local men joined the regiments.

Excavation at Ribchester
Excavation at Ribchester

Inscriptions provide evidence for Spaniards, Syrians, Hungarians and many other peoples in Roman Britain. Earlier thematic collecting interviews have featured Swiss and Noricans, again from eastern Europe.  This provides an interesting counterpoint to the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in which immigration was a significant issue for some voters. Archaeologically and historically Ribchester and many other Roman sites in Britain provide clear evidence of the movement of people from all over Europe and beyond almost 2,000 years ago. This mixing of different peoples and cultures throughout history has made us who we are today. The discoveries at Ribchester provide a little perspective in the debate about immigration in the immediate aftermath of the referendum vote.

 

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