Imperial War Museum offers a look inside Lesbos refugee camp

Immersive film footage from one of the most desperate places in Europe, the sprawling Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, is to go on display as part of events exploring 100 years of refugee experiences.

The Imperial War Museum in London will on Thursday open displays and installations that were meant to have opened in April but were delayed by the pandemic.

They include an exhibition of objects and art telling refugee stories and the immersive film footage, which was captured by the CNN filmmaker Lewis Whyld in February and again earlier this month.

Moria was designed for 2,200 people but is home to about 18,000, many of whom have fled the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Museum visitors will enter a 30 sq metre space and experience life in the camp on three large wall projections.

People inside the Life in a Camp exhibit

Footage of the camp was captured by the CNN filmmaker Lewis Whyld. Photograph: Andrew Tunnard/c/o IWM London

It is meant to be an unsettling five minutes. “I found it very moving,” said Iris Veysey, the museum’s contemporary conflict curator. “It offers a perspective you rarely see, if ever. By projecting it at scale and showing people going about their ordinary business you get a glimpse of their individuality.

“Often people will see refugees on the news and see big headlines and big numbers. But you forget of course that these are just people trying to go about their life and trying to reach safety.”

Clearly it is a horrible place but viewers also get a sense of human adaptability, with footage of children happily playing, people making bread, fruit and veg stalls, and men gathering to build a makeshift mosque.

“Yes, these places are really hard and really difficult and conditions are very unpleasant but you do see people building communities and building different kinds of spaces,” said Veysey. “It really gives a glimpse into the humanity behind the headlines.”

An aerial photo shows the Moria refugee camp after it was burnt down earlier this month

An aerial photo shows the Moria refugee camp after it was burnt down earlier this month. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/c/o IWM London

The footage was updated to show the terrible effects of a recent fire which this month destroyed large sections of the camp, leaving more than 12,000 people without shelter.

The immersive experience complements the IWM’s Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibition, which displays art, objects, photographs and oral histories exploring 100 years of refugee stories.

Some of the objects are mundane – a teddy bear, sheet music, ice skates, a tweed cap. Perhaps not practical when fleeing your country of birth but important to the refugees. “People take very personal things, things which bring them joy,” said Veysey.

The Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibition explores a century of refugee experiences

The Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibition explores a century of refugee experiences. Photograph: Andrew Tunnard/IWM London

The exhibition also tells less well-known stories, including what was the largest influx of refugees in British history when 250,000 Belgians fled to Britain during the first world war. They even made a town for themselves near Birtley, Tyne and Wear. Called Elisabethville, it was administered by the Belgian government under strict military law. Contact with the locals was discouraged.

After visiting the exhibition people can have a go at applying for refugee status in an immigration booth staffed by an artificial intelligence border guard. It invites you to do a series of tests and make happy, sad, angry and fearful faces to decide whether you are eligible in a new, futuristic world where international movement is policed by machines.

A Face to Open Doors exhibit

A Face to Open Doors takes people into an imaginary future world where international movement is policed by intelligent machines. Photograph: Andrew Tunnard/IWM London

Created by artists Anagram the experience, titled A Face To Open Doors, will also visit locations in Manchester.

Life in a Camp, and Refugees: Forced to Flee are free to enter and at IWM London from 24 September to 24 May 2021.


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