Radical Objects: A Refugee’s Life Jacket at Manchester Museum

In early December 2016, I found myself in a small twin propeller aeroplane above the Aegean Sea buffeted by strong winds, the sea beneath us roiling whilst my fellow passengers quietly crossed themselves. I was travelling to Lesvos to collect a refugee’s life jacket for Manchester Museum’s collecting life project.

In 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria made the short but dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesvos. At the height of the crisis, up to 10,000 refugees and migrants arrived every day, doubling the island’s population every fortnight. Both life jackets and inflatable dinghies were abandoned on landing; they covered the beaches of Lesvos, and testified to the vast numbers of refugees who made the treacherous crossing. It was one of these life jackets that was presented to Manchester Museum by the Mayor of Mytilene, the capital and port of Lesvos, and which now forms a part of our collection and display. The choice to collect a life jacket was an intuitive one; the life jacket has come to symbolise the mass movement of people and the dangerous plight of refugees.

Abandoned life jackets on the beach on Lesvos. Photo courtesy of Giannis Iliadis and Dmitri Papageorgiou. Life Jacket on display at Manchester Museum. Photo courtesy of Bryan Sitch.

While new collecting might be considered an indulgence in the current climate of austerity in the UK, if museums don’t continue to collect they will become moribund institutions. Rather than attempt to collect in every discipline, Manchester Museum Director Nick Merriman proposed that museums should collect thematically. For Manchester Museum, this meant focusing on climate change and contemporary debate on migration. Both these themes connect to the Museum’s central mission statement, to ‘promote understanding between cultures and to work towards a sustainable world’.

Thematic collecting isn’t just about acquiring objects, but demands that curators document the circumstances of collecting too. The full story of my journey to collect the life jacket is available on Manchester Museum’s Thematic Collecting blog. During the trip, I arranged to meet lecturers at the University of the Aegean and film short interviews about their work with refugees. I also interviewed the Mayor’s senior adviser, the manager of the Mosaik workshop where materials from recycled life jackets were made into bags, a volunteer for the Mytilene branch of the Hellenic Red Cross, and two volunteers at the Pikpa camp for vulnerable refugees. I was sensitive to the fact that an interview with a museum curator would be the last thing a refugee would want on arrival to Lesvos. It wasn’t until my return to the UK that I interviewed a Syrian refugee living in Manchester. Excerpts from these interviews were shown at the entrance to the Museum to contextualise the life jacket we collected.

Entrance to Pikpa refugee camp with sign saying ‘Safe Passage’ on life jackets. Photo courtesy of Bryan Sitch.

After the refugee life jacket was first put on display, Manchester Museum commissioned Syrian-born artist Zahed Taj-eddin to create a gallery installation inspired by the Museum’s Egyptology collection. Taj-eddin was particularly inspired by the Museums’ collection of shabti funerary figurines that were placed in tombs to act as servants in the afterlife. The artist created ‘Nu’ ceramic shabtis and suspended them in the galleries. He said that the figures invited ‘visitors to think about ancient and modern human issues such as the beliefs and actions that lead us to venture into the unknown and explore a better life beyond’. This innovative work, called ‘Suspended Truth’, draws a comparison between the blue figures inspired by ancient Egyptian shabtis and the experience of migrants travelling across the Mediterranean towards a new existence: both face long-term uncertainty and neither knows whether they will reach their destination. In response to the piece, the refugee life jacket display was moved to the Egyptology gallery, where it was felt there would be synergy with Taj-eddin’s installation.

Although the project has received favourable responses from museum professionals and curators, we initially had only anecdotal evidence of the reaction from museum visitors. We wanted to understand the extent to which artistic responses to human migration stories helped make other elements of the migration thematic collection more accessible for museum audiences. To investigate this, we invited an archaeology student at the University of Manchester to conduct visitor surveys. The surveys found that the vast majority of visitors (over 95%) did not even stop to look at the life jacket. The reason for this wasn’t clear. Was showing something so contemporary against a backdrop of ancient Egyptology too incongruous? Were visitors suffering from ‘compassion fatigue’? Was the intended link between Taj-eddin’s shabtis and the life jacket too obscure? Of those visitors who did engage with the life jacket, almost all used the word ‘sad’ when talking about it. Although visitors agreed that museums should be doing this work, some commented that the life jacket was out of place in the Egyptology Gallery. One visitor, in particular, took exception to the life jacket, saying it shouldn’t be on display and that it was brainwashing children. More focused work with visitors is clearly needed to understand these responses, but the life jacket remains a significant part of the Manchester Museum’s thematic collection on migration, and an important physical record of the contemporary history of migration and the dangerous journeys faced by the Syrian refugees who reached Lesvos.

The life jacket is currently on display in the Egyptology Gallery at Manchester Museum.

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