Interpreting the migrant crisis

Nicola Sullivan, 18.05.2016
When golden beaches become coastlines of abandoned lifejackets
Aid worker Sarah Savage and the Migration Museum Project raised £5,770 through crowdfunding to bring 150 lifejackets from the beaches of the Greek island of Kos to London.

The jackets, many of which are dangerous fakes, will be used to create an installation at the Migration Museum Project’s exhibition Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond, which will take place at the Londonnewcastle Project Space in east London from 2-22 June.

The money raised made it possible to collect, store and ship the lifejackets and design the installation. Some of the funds will also be used to transport and display other exhibits for the show.    

But getting the lifejackets transported from Kos to London was far from easy. This was because a ruling, designed to prevent items such as boats and lifejackets being sold on, which rendered all objects washed up on the beaches the property of the government. Even though Savage had collected the lifejackets before the ruling was enforced she still had difficulties convincing some couriers to ship them.   

Savage spoke to Museum Practice about how she got involved with the project and the role culture has to play in increasing people’s understanding of a crisis that has claimed thousands of lives.

How did you get involved with the Migration Museum Project’s exhibition?
I’ve been on an incredibly life-changing journey and it is something that I didn’t realise would have such a huge and profound effect on me. One of the first things that you really notice when you’re on the island is that where ordinarily you would see beautiful golden beaches there were coastlines of abandoned lifejackets. The visual image of that is so significant and so stirring - a stark reminder of what was going on and what we were facing at that time.
I was writing a blog at the time – daily accounts of what was going on. It was received really well. You think you’ve heard the most terrifying story – cut to 10 minutes later and you’re listening to yet another unimaginable tale. I was trying to convey this as best I could.
The Migration Museum Project contacted me about curating a piece and asked me whether I would be interested in contributing to the exhibition.  
Can you tell me a bit more about the installation?
Each person that comes to see this installation will really be able to make an individual connection with the people who wore those jackets at a time when they were truly risking their lives. The jackets really do hold the weight of the emotion of the people who wore them last.

They wore them for such a short amount of time and the majority of them are fakes. The business of selling fake lifejackets, like the boats and the smugglers, has come hand-in-hand with people profiting from other people’s misery.

Lots of people from Syria have never swum and they have never been in the ocean.  Faced with that and the prospect of their boat capsizing they believe this lifejacket is the only thing that will save their life. But in actual fact it will pull them down and weigh them down, until they become heavier and heavier. The whole installation really holds the weight of that whole situation.
Do people on the frontline (like yourself) have an important role to play in the collection or objects and stories that can then be used by museums?  
Some people have had life changing experiences in terms of what they have seen and the people they have met, and from those, art will organically manifest. A good work of art should really should move and inspire you. If you’re trying to look at art through others' eyes you’re bound to be disappointed.

All too often in our galleries and museums things are really inaccessible – art needs to move and inspire ordinary people. If the art is coming from ordinary people on the frontline then it will get the message across.
What should be portrayed as art in the interpretation of current crises? Is there a danger of being overly voyeuristic?  
Who does the art create value for? If there are three tiers of value then art and culture are doing the job of creating awareness. Does creating value for the artist and is it a cathartic experience for them to relay their firsthand experience? Does the artwork move and inspire the audience to become better people and really look within themselves for their humanity? Is the artwork really working to speak for people who are currently in need? Does it challenge the injustices and imbalances that our fellow human beings are going through at this time?

Does art and culture have an important role to play in the telling of untold stories?

If art and culture can be a solid touchstone and actually be made accessible to ordinary people, and not just talk to the artistic elite, then I truly believe humankind’s destiny to experience war and misery repeatedly can be greatly transformed.
If this crisis is being forgotten about and not being talked about through firsthand experiences, then we are really doing a disservice and injustice to our fellow human beings.