On the anniversary of “tre ottobre” – Cultures of memory on Lampedusa

Today marks the first anniversary of “tre ottobre”, the incisive shipwreck with at least 350 deaths. While the tragedy, preceded by the Pope’s visit to Lampedusa just weeks before, has set some political process in motion, it cannot retrospectively be seen as an earnest turning point. One year later, “Mare Nostrum”, one of the few innovative initiatives to tackle migrant distress at sea, is about to come to an end and any attempt to integrate the mission into the portfolio of Frontex will lead to a predominant logic of “internal security”, not “humanity”. In addition, the IOM has just released statistics for 2014 according to which more than 3000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean until now, by far the largest number.

The images of migrants coming to European shores on jam-packed boats will arguably become part of our European collective memory of the early 21st century. But how is this memory epitomized, historicised, preserved and connected to an ongoing reality? More precisely, how can Lampedusa meet its symbolic burden with a site of memory dedicated to the destiny of migrants in the Mediterranean? Sometimes, such places of commemoration emerge spontaneously through civil society, like the oceans of flowers on the island of Utoya or more recently after the deadly shootings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Lampedusa, in this sense, is not very flowery. In 2008, the city of Lampedusa, under the auspices of the UNHCR, has inaugurated a monument “Porta di Lampedusa – Porta d’Europa” by the Italian artist Mimmo Palladino. A door of almost five meters in height, made of refractory ceramics, erected in some isolation close to the cliffs at the South of the island – a pensive piece of art, yet no illustration of migratory reality and individual journeys. Another site would be a migrant cemetery, but the municipal cemetery lacks space and often, burials take place in Sicily, such as after the shipwreck of October 3, 2013. For those buried on Lampedusa, short signages indicate the probable country of origin and approximate age and conditions of death, which at times reads as an eulogy to the work of the Italian Coast Guard.

This reality is reflected most powerfully by the assemblages of boats that can be found right at the port and formerly across the island. However, as mayor Nicolini indicated, this “boat cemetery” is born from necessity and only a temporary site – boats are destroyed on a rolling basis.

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Creating a permanent site of commemoration is precisely the aim of the local collective “Askavusa” (“barefoot”) whose members we met during our trip. Against considerable opposition on the local level, the NGO has created “Porto M”, a small museum, inaugurated in February 2014, which is centred around migrant boats and objects found on them. As Lucca, one of their members explained, Askavusa was initially accorded three boats, one of which was set on fire by opponents of a memorial site who feared it might ruin their business in fishing and tourism. In recent times, the collective has followed a highly integrative approach, trying to bring different interest groups on the island together during an annual film festival. Refusing any funding from public Italian or European authorities, the collective is dependent on support by citizen’s networks and volunteers.

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“Porto M” is an unusual, yet impressive museum site. Introduced by a conceptual outline justifying the absence of any further explanation on the objects, the exhibition consists of an eclectic collection of items that migrants took with them on their journey to Europe. In shelves built into the bulk of migrant boats, one finds cookware, tear-off calendars, jam jars, prayer manuals, medicine, canned fish, family photos, poems, toothbrushes and clothes. Many objects are out of shape, indicating conditions on board. Some of them may have served during the journey, whereas some cultural essentials – such as music tapes and novels – stand for a belief in a longer future in Europe. Every object then, in the purity of its presentation, becomes an invitation to think about the individual destiny of its owner. Unlike museological concepts which stress the mere number of victims, such as the collection of shoes, pans, glasses and luggage in Auschwitz, “Porto M” offers an immediate and individual confrontation with migratory reality. Going through the shelves, the question becomes inevitable: “What would I have taken with me?”

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