Neil MacGregor recently stepped down from his job as director of the British Museum, one of the biggest and most fabled institutions of its kind in the world. It was formed in the 18th century, based upon the collections of the very wealthy and urbane Sir Henry Sloane, who wanted to create a center for collecting and showcasing objects from civilizations around the world, both past and present.
The result was the building in the early 19th century of the largest Greek Revival building in Britain, still in use today as the museum’s home. Its circular library reading room, whose entire building is now under glass, is perhaps the most famous reading room in the world.
The museum’s collections include the Elgin Marbles that once formed a frieze atop the Parthenon in Athens, as well as the Rosetta Stone that enabled us to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. And although the museum is famous for the grand and glorious, it also highlights the tiniest of objects that can shed light on our own civilization as well as those those of the past.
One of these small objects is the Lampedusa Cross, made from the wreckage of a refugee boat by Francesco Tucci, a carpenter on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies north of the Libyan coast, and is often the first landfall for migrants and refugees fleeing from North Africa and the Middle East.
Many of the boats were small, overcrowded and unseaworthy, so that they often capsized near Lampedusa, taking hundreds of refugees to a watery death. The Lampedusa Cross was made from the wreckage of a boat sunk in 2013, carrying more than 500 people from Eritrea and Somalia, many of them Christians fleeing from persecution in their own country. Their boat caught fire, capsized and sank. There were only 151 survivors.
Francesco Tucci met some of them in his local church. Though unable to help them in a concrete way, he collected wood from their wrecked boat and made each of them a cross as a symbol of hope. The carpenter also made a cross for Pope Francis to carry at a memorial service.
At this point, the British Museum, which had learned of the crosses, contacted Tucci to see if he could donate one he had already made. He coul and he did. When the museum thanked Tucci, he wrote back, saying: “It is I who should thank you for drawing attention to the burden symbolized by this small piece of wood.”
The museum said “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 millennia.”
MacGregor said recently: “This simple yet moving object is a poignant gift to the collection. … Mr. Tucci’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.”
MacGregor is an extraordinary individual, but so is Mr. Tucci, the carpenter on the tiny island of Lampedusa. MacGregor turned down a knighthood a few years ago, but later accepted the Order of Merit, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Not long ago, he was offered the job of heading New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but he turned it down on the grounds that as it charged an admission fee, the Metropolitan was not truly a public institution.
He turned out three major television series in Britain, one of which, A History of the World in 100 Objects, became a best-selling book. It is a fascinating account of the world’s civilizations, past and present, based on a series of 100 beautifully photographed objects beginning with the Mummy of Hornedjitef (Egyptian) and ending with a Solar-powered Lamp and Charger (modern Chinese).
It is wonderfully readable, and the pictures are marvelous. So are Mr. Tucci’s little crosses, whittled from the wreckage of a refugee boat. The world is a better place because of these two men.
Bill Stewart writes about current affairs from Santa Fe. He is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and worked as a correspondent for Time magazine.