A British Museum Spotlight Loan

Crossings: community and refuge

The story of human life on earth is a story of migration. This movement became more difficult with the introduction of modern borders and national identities. 

There is no one story of migration. It is a vast, complex, interconnected set of situations. The root causes of migration in modern Europe are different to the circumstances in Asia or the Americas. Economic and climate crises affect different groups of people in different ways.

People have moved for a better life and they have moved to escape threats on their lives.

Reactions to migrants arriving in the UK can be mixed. Some of us see it as an enrichment of our communities, some as a threat. This can depend on our personal circumstances and the place we hold in society. We all make assumptions about migration and its impact, but are things always what they appear?

The Lampedusa Cross made of wood from a wrecked refugee boat is a reminder of lost lives, the kindness of strangers and the impact of traumatised survivors on receiving communities. Alongside the cross, artist Issam Kourbaj’s tiny fragile boats, fashioned from discarded and repurposed materials, capture the uncertainty and fear experienced by those separated from home as they embark on these traumatic voyages.

The Lampedusa Cross - a wooden cross covered with flecks of blue, green and yellow paint.

british museum logo   M Shed logo

From ‘Home’ by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire

…you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…

The Lampedusa Cross - a wooden cross covered with flecks of blue, green and yellow paint.

The Lampedusa Cross, Francesco Tuccio, 2015

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The Lampedusa Cross

Francesco Tuccio, 2015

Made by Francesco Tuccio, Lampedusa’s carpenter, the cross is made of wood from the boat that caught fire and sank off the coast of Lampedusa on 11 October 2013 with a loss of 311 lives. There was no official rescue service at the time, but the island’s inhabitants risked their lives to save 155 people and then cared for them from their own small resources. In Lampedusa’s church, Francesco met some of the surviving Eritrean and Somali refugees, who were fleeing persecution through Libya then attempting to cross to Europe.

Moved by their experiences, he made each of them a small, pendant cross symbolising their salvation from the sea and hope for the future. He went on to make and distribute larger crosses for museums, churches and community organizations worldwide, in the hope of engaging people with the plight of the displaced, as well as the impact on the communities that receive them. This example is from the British Museum.

12 small model boats made of tyres and matchsticks

Dark Water, Burning World, Issam Kourbaj, 2016

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Dark Water, Burning World

Issam Kourbaj, 2016

Issam Kourbaj was born in Syria in 1963. He has a background in fine art, architecture and theatre design. Kourbaj trained in Damascus, St Petersburg and London. Since 1990, he has lived and worked in Cambridge, where he has been an Artist in Residence at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge and a Lector in Art.

Kourbaj’s most recent work has focussed on the crisis in Syria and Dark Water Burning World is a collaboration with poet Ruth Padel. The twelve little boats here are part of a larger group, some from the British Museum and some kindly lent by the artist, and were inspired by ancient miniature model ships from 5th century BC Syria. The installation examines the ongoing plight of Syrian refugees and the dangerous journeys many face crossing the Mediterranean.

The boats are made from repurposed bicycle mudguards, jam-packed with upright, extinguished matchsticks, which evoke the huddled groups of people making the sea crossing to Europe. These escaped people now carry visible and invisible scars, scorched into them by the separation from their homeland. The once beautiful and abundant sea has become a terrifying expanse on which the lives or deaths of thousands are decided.

Refugees and migrants living in Bristol Today

To accompany this intimate display, M Shed has commissioned a series of audio interviews from five refugees and migrants living in Bristol today. Each person has contributed an object to accompany their story.

By presenting these narratives alongside the British Museum Spotlight loan, we briefly explore the motivations, joys, sorrows and intricacies that migration can involve.

a lanyard, pedometer and business card


embellished flash with patterns made from colourful dots


a bible with its pages open and highlighted text


a book with the title 'to egypt with love'


black, red and grey rugby shirt and boots



The British Museum’s National Programmes aim to highlight key objects in its collection. It is one of the many ways the Museum collaborates with organisations across the UK. Through this programme and other touring exhibitions and loans, in 2021/22 the British Museum lent 1,594 objects to 95 venues, reaching three million visitors – one million more than visited the British Museum in the same period.

The British Museum is proud to be working in partnership with M Shed on Crossings: community and refuge.

This Spotlight Loan is supported by the Dorset Foundation in memory of Harry M Weinrebe.

This Spotlight Loan has toured to the following venues:

  • Coventry Cathedral 22 – 23 May 2021
  • People’s History Museum Manchester 29 May – 5 September 2021
  • Hastings Museum and Art Gallery 10 September – 5 December 2021
  • Derby Museum and Art Gallery 10 December 2021 – 6 March 2022
  • Ipswich Museum 11 March – 12 June 2022
  • M Shed, Bristol 18 June – 18 September 2022

It will then tour to:

  • Rochester Cathedral 22 September – 27 November 2022
  • Shire Hall Historic Court House Museum, Dorchester 1 December 2022 – 26 February 2022