A cross made from the wreckage of a refugee boat that capsized in the Mediterranean is to tour English museums and art galleries later this year to encourage debate and reflection on the plight of migrants.

The cross, acquired by the British Museum in London five years ago, is one of a number made by a carpenter on the Italian island of Lampedusa, close to the Tunisian coastline.

It will visit Manchester, Hastings, Derby, Ipswich, Bristol and Rochester, where it will be free to view in venues such as museums, art galleries and cathedrals, on loan from the British Museum.

The cross will be accompanied by a display of 12 miniature boats made from bicycle mudguards and packed with burnt matches, representing those making the perilous crossing over the Mediterranean from north Africa to Europe. The boats are the work of a Syrian-born artist, Issam Kourbaj, and are part of a series titled Dark Water, Burning World.

The Lampedusa crosses were made by Francesco Tuccio in the aftermath of a boat tragedy in October 2013. The vessel was carrying 466 people from Somalia and Eritrea when it caught fire, capsized and sank near the island, drowning 311 people. Survivors were taken to a church on Lampedusa attended by Tuccio. The islanders pooled resources to feed and clothe survivors and bury bodies washed up on the shore.

Tuccio made a cross from the boat’s wreckage for each of the 155 survivors, and several larger ones as symbols of community.

Three of the miniature boats
Also displayed will be 12 miniature boats packed with burnt matches by Syrian-born artist, Issam Kourbaj. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum

Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, said: “The wood of the cross is a reminder of the passage, not only of these vulnerable refugees who staked everything on the boats being able to safely transport them, but of the human beings throughout history who have sought refuge on similar perilous journeys. I hope visitors around the UK will connect with the poignancy of the cross and be able to reflect upon the ongoing disruption, upheaval and hope that it symbolises.”

Jill Cook, the curator of Crossings: Community and Refuge, said: “The Lampedusa Cross reminds us of all the histories that are lost and of the thousands of people who are not otherwise remembered. The wood with its paint blistered by the sun and smelling of salt, sea, and suffering embodies a crisis of our times, as well as hope.

“The cross invites discussion of the varied reactions to one of the great tragedies of our time. It is an artefact shaped by tragedy that symbolises those who have nothing and desperately seek to share in a better future.”

Syrians who crossed the Mediterranean in flimsy boats were desperate to escape the destruction in their home country, said Kourbaj. In his miniature boats, the burnt matches reflected “the trauma that those women, children and men carry with them, while water-like resin holds these burnt matches together, just as we all bond, hold and support each other in desperate times”.

The venues showing the Lampedusa Cross and Kourbaj’s boats are likely to hold workshops and talks on the experiences of migrants and how communities have responded.

Crossings: Community and Refuge opens at the People’s History Museum in Manchester on 29 May.



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