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Promoting Understanding: Collecting and Displaying a Refugee’s Life Jacket

Bryan Sitch on how by collecting and displaying a refugee’s life jacket Manchester Museum is actively engaging with visitors and the wider public about one of the major challenges of our time, migration.

As Curator of Archaeology and Deputy Head of Collections at Manchester Museum, I travelled to the Greek island of Lesvos in early December 2016 in order to collect a refugee’s life jacket. This was just one of hundreds of thousands of life jackets abandoned by refugees after crossing the narrow but dangerous straits between Turkey and Lesvos. In 2015 up to 10,000 refugees were arriving on Lesvos every day and the island’s population was doubling every ten days. Many of the refugees were 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. Nearly one hundred people drowned off the coast of Lesvos in just one week early in 2016. Even more people have lost their lives trying to cross to Italy from North Africa.

In collecting and displaying a refugee’s life jacket, Manchester Museum is actively engaging with visitors and the wider public about one of the major challenges of our time, migration. Migration is very important politically, and has been cited as a major factor in the outcome of the referendum about the UK’s membership of the European Union and of the presidential elections in the United States and the general election in the UK.

Acquiring a refugee’s life jacket was particularly relevant to us because migration is one of the themes of Manchester Museum’s Collecting Life project, which is intended to reinvigorate collecting here and in other museums. Displaying a life jacket also helps promote understanding between different cultures, which is one of the twin aims of the Museum’s vision statement.

Whilst I was on the island, I also filmed a number of short interviews with aid workers, academics, and volunteers trying to help refugees. Interviewing a refugee on the island was simply too sensitive and so on my return to Manchester I filmed an interview with Delvan Ibrahim, a Syrian who made the journey to Lesvos from Turkey by sea, and who now lives in Manchester.

The life jacket and the interviews are now on display in the entrance to the Museum. The display also features several bags made from recycled life jackets. Huge numbers of plastic life jackets have been abandoned on Lesvos and other Greek islands. They represent an unprecedented environmental challenge. Many of the lifejackets have been gathered from the beaches by the island authorities and some are being recycled to make into bags. The two bags displayed in the Museum were made in the Mosaik workshop in Mytilene on Lesvos. The proceeds from the sale of the bags are used to help refugees.

Since its installation on 3rd March 2017, the life jacket has drawn a hugely positive response from visitors and researchers, and has stimulated lots of comments on social media. We are encouraging people to share their comments and responses to the display on social media using #MMLifeJacket.

Manchester Museum’s work on the theme of migration has, more recently, received fresh impetus with the opening of an innovative and thought-provoking installation by Syrian artist Zahed Tajeddin.

Bryan Sitch
Curator of Archaeology and Deputy Head of Collections, Manchester Museum

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