Recently, I heard Emma Jane Kirby’s piece on the British Museum’s acquisition of The Lampedusa Cross in October 2015. It highlighted some of the frustrations I have with current approaches to museums and their practice, certainly in the UK, and I’d like to ponder that a bit further in this post.
Just a quick background to the cross first: On 3rd October 2013, a boat carrying refugees sank before the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Only about 150 of the over 500 refugees onboard could be rescued. A local carpenter met some of the survivors in his church, and feeling helpless in the face of their suffering, he made crosses for them from the wreckage of their boat. He continued to make crosses, and the BM commissioned one of them. He then donated it to the museum.
In the radio piece (see also the BM’s press release), the curator notes that the museum ‘ is a reflection of the society around us.’ However, this emerges as a fairly one-dimensional reflection. Again the curator: ‘…refugees and migrants have nothing, they’re kind of invisible in the record.’ The cross, therefore, is first a record, and predominantly of refugees. And what it records is a very narrow aspect of refugees’ experiences. The press release describes the cross as a record of ‘the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees/migrants as they seek to cross from Africa into Europe.’ This then is the main story that the cross can tell, and which is why the museum had to collect it. The curator said, ‘…that is the most important thing about the museum, that we tell stories about all people in all parts of the world’. The interpretation (or ‘curator’s comments’) on the Collection online entry only adds to the above that the cross ‘stands witness to the kindness of the people of the small island of Lampedusa who have done what they can for the refugees and migrants who arrive on their shores’.
I haven’t yet seen how the cross is displayed and interpreted at the BM. Judging from the visitor reactions in the radio piece, it’s along the lines of the above. And the above to me is an example of how museums prune the contemporary relevance of objects and miss an opportunity to actually contribute to what moves and changes today’s world in this very moment. The BM press release in fact suggests that the real purpose of collecting the cross lies in the future. The curator said it’s ‘to make sure in 200 years’ time…our descendents can make an exhibition to show what happens now.’
There are a few things here that deeply unsettle me. Firstly, as I live in this present that appears set to tear Europe apart and lead, as far as I can see, most likely to another war, I’m really not that concerned about anyone’s ability to make an exhibition about this period in the future. If that’s really all that museums are about, then they do nothing for our present.
Secondly, the stories that we’re geared up to ‘pass down to future generations’, of tragic refugees and helpful locals, also present a worryingly sanitised picture of what’s going on at the moment. I wonder, in collecting the cross, are we actually trying to make ourselves feel and look better? The curator expressed her hope for how the object would be perceived in the future like this: ‘…the children and grand-children of people caught up in these desperate migrations, and their children and grand-children will know that we did notice what was happening, that we did care, and that we did try to reflect the crisis, the desperation, but also the hope in the collection that we make for the future.’
In this story, we can identify with the helpful people of Lampedusa, and express our sadness for the plight of the victim-refugees. In reality, however, we are all collectively engaged in writing a parallel story right now, one that maybe doesn’t make us look as good: About an Italy unable to maintain the Mare Nostrum rescue operation it launched precisely in response to the Lampedusa disaster, because an unhelpful Europe refused to support it. About Britons’ attitudes toward refugees that are among the least welcoming in Europe. About Germany, where over one million refugees arrived in 2015, now wondering whether she can integrate successfully the old and new arrivals from sometimes very different cultural backgrounds.
Why are these stories not mentioned? Are they not what represents the real depth of the Lampedusa Cross, and its relevance today? Is it good enough for museums today to ignore these issues of the present and defer critical engagement and judgment to the future? Is it good enough for museums to declare that they reflect contemporary society while knowingly excluding other stories that are equally associated with an object, but far less comfortable? Can we hide behind justifications of immediate material connections?
The carpenter that made the Lampedusa Cross appears to have hoped that having it in the British Museum would make a difference in the current crisis. According to the curator he wondered, ‘…is this enough then to break down the wall in the hearts of people who are still indifferent to this crisis?’
The way the cross is viewed and discussed at the moment I would have to say: It’s unlikely.