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The Lampedusa Cross - British Museum

The Lampedusa Cross, made by Francesco Tuccio and donated to the Museum in  October 2015. © Trustees of the British Museum.

ON FRIDAY, December 18, 2015, to mark Neil MacGregor’s last day as Director, the British Museum revealed the final acquisition made under his directorship: the Lampedusa Cross.

Made by Mr Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter who lives and works on the island of Lampedusa, The Lampedusa Cross was donated to the collection in October 2015 and went on public display in Room 2 on December 18.

The cross is made from the wreckage of a boat that sank off the coast of Lampedusa on October 3, 2013 carrying refugees from Eritrea and Somalia. 500 people were on board when the overcrowded boat caught fire, capsized and sank. Only 151 people survived. Some of the survivors were Eritrean Christians, fleeing persecution in their home country.

Mr Tuccio met some of the survivors in his church of San Gerlando and frustrated by his inability to make any difference to their plight, he went and collected some of the timber from the wreckage and made each of them a cross to reflect their salvation and as a symbol of hope for the future. On request, Mr Tuccio also made a cross which was carried by Pope Francis at the memorial service for the survivors.

The British Museum heard about the crosses and contacted Mr Tuccio to see if it could acquire one for the collection. Mr Tuccio made and donated this cross to the collection as a symbol of the suffering and hope of our times. When the museum thanked him he wrote ‘it is I who should thank you for drawing attention to the burden symbolized by this small piece of wood.’

It is essential that the Museum continues to collect objects that reflect contemporary culture in order to ensure the collection remains dynamic and reflects the world as it is.

The Lampedusa disaster was one of the first examples of the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees/migrants as they seek to cross from Africa into Europe. The cross allows the Museum to represent these events in a physical object so that in 10, 50, 100 years’ time this latest migration can be reflected in a collection which tells the stories of multiple migrations across millenia.

Neil MacGregor, official British Museum portrait by Wolfgang Tillmans, 2015.

Neil MacGregor said: “This simple yet moving object is a poignant gift to the collection. Mr Tuccio’s generosity will allow all visitors to the Museum to reflect on this significant moment in the history of Europe, a great migration which may change the way we understand our continent.

“In my time at the Museum we have acquired many wonderful objects, from the grand to the humble, but all have sought to shine a light on the needs and hopes that all human beings share. All have enabled the Museum to fulfil the purpose for which it was set up: to be a Museum of the world and for the world, now and well into the future.”

The Museum has also revealed the official portrait of the outgoing Director by German artist Wolfgang Tillmans RA. Commissioned by the Trustees of the British Museum, this is the first photographic portrait of a British Museum Director. There is a tradition stretching back 250 years of a portrait being produced of each Director of the Museum. As is traditional, the British Museum sought the advice of the President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Christopher Le Brun, before approaching German artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans RA. The photograph was taken in the course of an afternoon in October 2015.

Image (top): The Lampedusa Cross, made by Francesco Tuccio and donated to the Museum in October 2015. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Image (bottom): Neil MacGregor, official British Museum portrait by Wolfgang Tillmans, 2015.