Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Politics of Artifacts

Yesterday, I went to the Archeological museum, which was an interesting experience to say the least. This is because most of Turkey's past has been packed up and shipped to other countries. It started with the Venetians who raided the city during the 4th Crusade in 1204 (despite the fact that Constantinople was a Christian ally city, it was just too rich an opportunity to pass up, apparently). In fact, most of St. Mark's square, that famous square in downtown Venice, has been shipped from Old Constantinople as spoils of war. The four horses on top of St. Mark's cathedral, for instance, came from a display that was in the middle of the Hippodrome.

The great altar at Pergamon, a famous building which I studied at length in college and just recently remembered why, is now sitting - in its entirety - in a museum in Berlin.

At first when I heard this, I was outraged. And even more so when I heard the excuses – first that these governments aquired the artifacts 'legitimately' (to which I say there is no grandfather clause on grave robbing) or that they are better equipt to take care of the cultural heritage of the Turks than the Turks themselves. As an anthropologist, I was infused with self-righteous fury. How dare the rest of the world dictate what Turkey can and cannot do with its own heritage? But as I research more into the topic, I have to admit that someone might have a point. First, there are the instances of embezzaling and corruption going on in the museums in Turkey.

Over recent years, many treasures have been repatriated to Turkey and installed in local museums. One collection, the Karun Treasure, famously won by the Turkish government in a epic legal battle in 1993 with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the subject of scandal 13 years later when one of its most valuable pieces, a golden winged-horse brooch, was found to have been replicated and stolen. The museum director and several others were implicated in connection with the incident. More investigations were launched into other museums across the country due to the Karun scandal attracting international headlines.

So, that's piece of evidence number one: corruption is a problem when it comes to museums in Turkey. Number two would be what I saw yesterday at the Archeological museum. For the most part, its a really great museum, despite a confusing set up. I saw some of the most beautifuly carved stone tombs and sculptures. I was delighted to see some busts of people I had heard about when studying the Roman Empire: Alexander the Great, who needs no introduction (seriously, he took his armies over the Hindu Kush – that makes crossing the Alps with elephants look like something little kids do after school to feel dangerous. Sorry, Hannibal); Tiberius, the crazy drunken predecessor to some of the worst emporers in Roman history; Agrippina, his sister and Caligula's scheming and steely-nerved mother; Sappho, the Greek poetess who for some reason I always thought was a man; Agustus Ceasar, the first Emprorer and Julius Ceasar's adoptive son; Marcus Aurelius, the emporer who was also a famous stoic philosopher.

But then I came upon an inlay in the floor – glass through which you were supposed to be able to see a mummy. But the glass was filled with condesation to the point that it was dripping on the mummy. This is so not cool. Really, really not cool. I just stared in shock for a good five minutes before I decided that I wouldn't believe it later and took a picture. I can't believe a museum – let alone a big one like the Istanbul Archeological Museum – would be so careless with its artifacts. Though it could have been an isolated incident, I still feel if something so visible could happen to an artifact, then it would stand to reason other issues that can't as easily be identified are at work here.

In some ways, I can understand their carelessness, as they have more artifacts then they really have need for. Imagine having a whole city full of clay pots and arrow heads that, while ancient, have little historical or monetary value. They're old, but thats about it. The city is littered with what I have come to call 'column graveyards' where beautifully carved columns are plopped on the side of a road so it's out of the way of anything else. They also have random buildings that are part of the old Palace of the Byzantine Empire just chilling behind a fence on the roadside. It's kind of strange how people exist next to these things and never give them a second glance. To put this into perspective, these buildings are approximately 1,680 years old – thats almost 7 times as old as the United States of America. And they are used as tea shops or sometimes garbage dumps. Like the people of Cuzco, they live in antiquity and think nothing of it. I don't know how they don't just stop and stare every time they pass these structures. I certainly do.

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