The ‘Lampedusa Cross’ in the British Museum quietly tells a powerful story
The British Museum’s collection comprises a jaw-dropping eight million objects with some of the most beautiful and virtuosic things man has ever made. From gold burial treasures to the Parthenon sculptures, you’d be forgiven for thinking its focus lies solely on the heights of craftsmanship or the accoutrements of the wealthy, but the humility of its most recent acquisition is worth a moment’s pause.
The Lampedusa Cross was made by carpenter Francesco Tuccio from the timber wreckage of a boat that sank off the coast of Lampedusa, the Sicilian island on which Tuccio lives. The vessel, carrying refugees from Eritrea and Somalia, caught fire and sank on 3 October 2013. Of the 500 people on board only 151 survived.
Tuccio met some of the survivors from the accident in his church. ‘He was very moved by their suffering,’ explains Jill Cook, senior curator at the British Museum. ‘He wanted to do something and didn’t want to wait for the NGOs, so he used his woodworking skills to make them a gift. He collected the wood that had come ashore from the boat that they were in, and made them each a cross as a reflection of their suffering on the journey, their rescue, their salvation and hope for the future.’
Following the tragedy, the Pope came to Lampedusa to take a service, for which Tuccio was asked to make a chalice and a cross. Cook heard the story of this carpenter on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: ‘I was moved by it. I thought this would be a good object for the museum. This is a tragedy unfolding, an extraordinary moment in European history. It is changing Europe politically and will gradually change us socially and culturally. And yet the people themselves come with absolutely nothing. We’re a museum, we show objects, and here was an object that would enable us to tell the stories about how people escaped persecution, migrated, became refugees, and how a local community responded to them. These are large stories, but it’s also the documentation of a small act of kindness.’
Thinking, correctly, that Lampedusa wasn’t too big a place, Cook found a phone directory and looked for Tuccio. Conversations followed, and soon the museum had a new acquisition. It offered payment, but the carpenter refused. The Cross was given more prominence as Neil MacGregor, the museum’s outgoing director, selected it as the final acquisition to be made under his watch.
The piece was immediately placed on public display, opposite the Holy Thorn Reliquary, a 14th-century piece made of gold and jewels. ‘The contrast couldn’t be greater,’ Cook says, ‘but the symbolism and the love expressed in the one made by an ordinary carpenter is much more powerful than the great wealth and opulence of the other.’
The humble object has been moving visitors to tears, with the British Museum team receiving appreciative emails and letters from the public. For Cook, the object’s power is as material witness to a tragedy and subsequent kindness, but also as a representative for the diaspora: ‘They will come and yet it could be years before we see their influence on the things we make and things we buy. In that sense, archaeologically they are invisible… I hope that if one person sees the Cross and is moved to use their skills to do something about it, that will be great. I feel as helpless as they do in Lampedusa – what can I do about the situation? Well, like Mr Tuccio, I’ve used my skills as a curator to put this in the public eye. If all of us just used our skills, that would be a magnificent thing.’