Saturday 19 May 2012

Of Marbles and Men: Turkey Takes New Interest in Cultural Heritage

The Economist looks at Turkey’s cultural ambitions as it "launches a new culture war" and "gets tough with foreign museums" holding  stuff looted from Turkey ('Of Marbles and Men', May 19th 2012): 
The mildly Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, led by the Justice and Development (AK) party, likes to think of itself as the heir of the Ottoman sultans. The Turkish authorities have recently launched a wave of cultural expansionism, building new museums, repairing Ottoman remains, licensing fresh archaeological excavations and spending more on the arts. A grand museum in the capital, Ankara, is due to open in time for the centenary of the Turkish republic in 2023. “It will be the biggest museum in Turkey, one of the largest in Europe; an encyclopedic museum like the Metropolitan or the British Museum (BM),” boasts an aide to Ertugrul Gunay, the culture and tourism minister. “It’s his baby, his most precious project.” Turkey’s cultural plans at home are coupled with an unprecedentedly bold campaign to bring back treasures that it believes were stolen, which now sit in Western museums. These plans enjoy political support across the spectrum and the backing of all Turkey’s museum directors. The campaign targets many more objects and museums than the government has so far let on. “We are not waging a battle,” says Mr Gunay. “But this is definitely a struggle in the field of culture. And we are determined to boost our efforts in a more determined and more persistent way.”
It would be interesting to see  from the collectors currently decrying Turkey's efforts to repatriate stolen artefacts a reasoned argument why Turkey should not build a Universal Museum. Why should they be restricted to just a few nations ? And maybe Turkey deserves one:
Growing economic power and stalled talks over EU membership make many Turks feel that it is time to turn their backs on the West. Amid the turmoil of the Arab spring Turkey believes it can become the leader of the region.

The Economist's journalist is clearly on the side of the rich western museums and collectors, referring to the fact that stuff was ripped off and ripped up in the nineteenth century saved them:
removed treasures they believed might be at risk from war and insurrection, and gave them to the new European museums. Foreign scholars saved a considerable number of Turkish artefacts from being commercially looted or destroyed by invading armies. This is rarely mentioned in Turkey’s discussions about its archaeological past.
So looting stuff for yourself to "save' the objects from being looted by somebody else? That's the old metal detectorists' argument too. The economist grudgingly points out that "though Turkey passed a law in 1884 (updated in 1906) stating that all antiquities were the property of the state and could not be taken out of the country, this was only loosely enforced" and looters helped themselves to what they fancied. They present it as going back on some form of gentlemen's agreement that the Turkish government today "argues that any object without the correct permissions or with gaps in its provenance has been stolen and so belongs to Turkey".

The article gives its readers some details of some recent demands:
The Weary Hercules (returned to Turkey from BMFA in September 2011)
The Hattusas sphinx sent back after May 2011 from the Pergamon Museum,
Metropolitan Museum of Art (September 2011),
The Samsat Stela in the British Museum,
Turkey has many other museums in its sights. A list of artworks being sought abroad indicates the culture ministry has made similar demands of the Louvre, the Pergamon, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, the Davids Samling Museum in Denmark, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, DC, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Getty. It has also claimed stolen antiquities that have been seized by police in Frankfurt, Florence, Bulgaria, Switzerland and Scotland.
It seems Ertugrul Gunay could soon be taking the place in the Cultural Property Repatriation drive that  was (is?) occupied by Egypt's Zahi Hawass. His ministry is beefing up its anti-smuggling and intelligence bureau, and will soon add criminal and legal units to its task force. Gunay explained: “I wholeheartedly believe that each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland. Even if these objects are made of stone, just as people have souls, so do animals, plants and monuments. Taking a monument away destabilises the world and is disrespectful to history”. It seems his stance has a lot of support in today's Turkey.

The Economist sees a problem for the position of those holding artefacts from Turkey:
Turkey is convinced of the justice of its quest. Moreover the culture ministry lumps together objects that were smuggled out of the country illegally with those that were removed—perhaps legally to a place of greater safety, but not provably so—in an era when ownership was judged in a looser way. For Turkey, all of these objects were stolen. It is determined to get them back. [...] counting any object acquired without a distinct contract as stolen should alarm museums everywhere.
The fact that Turkey seems to be treating cases in the same manner whether they are pre-1970 or post-1970 (which of course is its sovereign right to do - especially in the light of the 1884 law) means that it lays its own museums open to similar claims. During the period of the Ottoman Empire, a number of important antiquities were taken (the Economist suggests they were all "forcibly removed") to central museums in what is now Turkey, and thus taken from their homelands which are today separate countries.

Photo: Ertugrul Gunay, the Turkish culture and tourism minister.

1 comment:

kyri said...

turkish museums are stuffed with pieces found in other countrys in the middle east when they were the colonial power.they havent got a good track record themselves.after the expulsions of the armenian and greek communitys from asia minor they systematicaly tried to erase any hellenic/armenian culture from the area and in northen cyprus the same with looting of archaeological sites and churches on an unpresedented scale with the complicity of the authorities.they should look at themselves before acusing others of colonism.

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