Initial and Current Museum Policies of Istanbul Archaeology Museum


Founded in efforts of Westernization, in the most difficult times of the Empire politically and economically, Istanbul Archaeological Museum (IAM) was the first museum of the Ottoman Empire. As an imperial museum, IAM had different connotations for the West and the public, implying sovereignty of the state over the historical artifacts in its territory as well as underscoring ‘being modern’ through the collections. As the state’s policy, regarding economic and political issues, both domestic and international changed, so did the collection and regulations of the museum. With the ending era of Osman Hamdi Bey, the museum had taken its current form in respect of museum premises and strict regulations on historical artifacts which were going to be in practice for long time even after the end of the Empire, had been enacted. Therefore, the process between the establishment of IAM in a time when there was not even a well constituted policy on cultural issues and the ending of the era of Osman Hamdi Bey is aimed to be studied with references to the State’s practices in respect of historical artifacts and implementations on IAM, whereby the museum policies of the time are aimed to be propounded.

After the millennium, modern Turkey, in efforts of harmonization process to the EU, has faced certain changes in the perception of the role of the state in culture area, which has been under the strict authority of the state. According to this, Turkey has adopted an approach, which suggests that the state should assume a regulative, not determinative, role in respect of culture policies. Upon the accession to power of AKP (Justice and Development Party), several amendments to the legal framework were introduced as well as the enactment of several new regulations. IAM has been experiencing some changes accordingly in administrative issues and a new approach to the museum’s policy has been adopted. In this context, initial and current role of the museum for the state and people aimed to be studied.

IAM was officially founded as an imperial museum in 1869, as a part of the westernization efforts in the Ottoman Empire, which had been going through a disintegration period, in an era when interest in archaeology was at the height in Europe. Although the impetus lying beneath establishment of the museum was to protect the antiques within the Ottoman territory, the museum was more than just for the protection and the exhibition of the antiques. Moreover, having adapted museum, along with other Western institutions, the state was not only implying the modernity, but also proclaiming sovereignty over the antiques as a symbol of the power of the state, through the museum. On the other hand; even though the museum expressed sovereignty and modernity in respect of foreign policy concerns, it was not attributed with any social roles, unlike its contemporary peers. Although some parallels between the museum and education was apparent initially, the museum was not been welcomed by the Islamic population of the Empire, who were skeptical about everything related to Christianity. The bad practices, regarding economic and political issues which were enforced by the Western powers during Tanzimat era, had resulted national riots and class conflict within the Ottoman Territory. Thus, Muslim population had generated a dislike, as a reaction often resulting to reject everything related to the West. Moreover, people remained distant to the museum as they did not consider the Greco-Roman artifacts as a part of their identity. However, the public’s lack of interest in the museum cannot be explained solely by identity matters. In addition to that, the museum had not been publicized enough and the public had not much idea about the artifacts in the museum. As we can see from the newspapers of the time, such as Malumat dated 1899, the museum had been criticized for being close on Fridays , off day for students and workers, and admission fee (5 kurus) considered too expensive discouraging people to visit the museum.

Apparently, the museum remained as a result of strong political will in an era of conflict between west and east was at its height. The Ottoman and Islamic artifacts, which had not been included to the collection of the museum in the early times, were added to the collection as of 1889, whereby the Islamic and Ottoman heritage and culture had been utilized as an instrument to integrate the Empire through the museum. However, Islamic artifacts were also declared to be considered as the state’s property in 1906.

The development of the museum had been primarily dependent on the ideological backgrounds and concerns of the statesmen. When enlightened men were in office the museum improved. The term of office of Osman Hamdi Bey was breakthrough for the museum. The devoted efforts and commitment of Osman Hamdi Bey enabled the collection of the museum to expand in a short period of time and the museum became known worldwide as one of the leading museums of the time. It is seen that the importance of the museum and the museology studies was appreciated upon the proven consequence of the Osman Hamdi Bey’s efforts. The museum started to be attached importance for its collection artifacts beyond the political motives, and the history of humanity started to be studied through the artifacts to obtain knowledge about the history. Even though the significance represented was fairly appreciated by the state; the museology activities could not be performed to the desired extent due to the lack of adequate budget and allowances.
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Although the museum was established as a reflex to the smuggling of antiques outside the Ottoman territory, no substantial improvement had been achieved due to weakness of the laws, if not the implementations of the state in order to provide political gain due to long-lasting wars and economic difficulties. The protection regulations which were enacted in 1906, the successor of 1884 regulations of Osman Hamdi Bey, had remained the sole regulation of Turkey until 1973. Although the regulation were revised and updated as necessary, the prevention of smuggling is still the most important issue in the Minister’s agenda today.

Currently, Turkey has been undergoing a regulatory transformation in numerous fields including the field of culture as a part of the process of harmonization with the EU norms. Therefore, the role of the government in cultural activities tends to be reduced progressively as the policies devoted to the provision of the cultural institutions with an autonomous structure are on the rise within the EU. In this context, the museums aim at being effective actors as the institutions operating in the culture sector characterized by the free market conditions. On the other hand, the museums also assume an important social mission; according to which, urbanization related social problems such as, increasing crime rate, alienation and isolation from society are associated with culture policy and aimed to be tackled through museums in order to attain positive social change. Thus, museums currently act as the very centers for the accomplishment of social transformation as they have historically been doing since the 19th century.

Throughout the harmonization process, the role and the significance of the state in the culture sector in Turkey has changed on the basis of the laws enacted as of 2004. According to the current legal framework; the state has assumed an encouraging role for the evaluation of the cultural properties to contribute to the national economy and rendering of culture accessible by all of the social segments. To this end, actions in cooperation with NGOs and the private sector has become a part of Turkey’s culture policies. Besides, social matters such as the strengthening of the social dialogue have been associated with the culture.

Several practices on the matter have started to be exercised with IAM, and actions have started to be taken for the provision of IAM with a rather autonomous financial structure as the museum, now, aims at generating visitors through the pursuit of customer-oriented policies as its peers in the EU do. In this context, the museum aims at becoming a ‘soliciting, welcoming and entertaining’ museum. Focusing on museum services, IAM’s statement implies that its values are hospitality and confidence. According the emphasis given, IAM seems to position itself as an establishment of service, attaching the priority to hospitality, in order to generate visitors.

IAM, sharing the same yard as Topkapi Palace, a museum visited by 2 million visitors a year, should indisputably be customer-oriented in order to gain share of visitors. However; IAM, which has one of the most precious field-specific collections in the world and has become even more important upon the addition of the Marmaray foundlings to its collection, cannot properly communicate its holding to its target audience. According to the museum’s development plan, the museum professionals call people to communicate the ‘museum’ in order to create an idea about the ‘place’, yet do not mention a word about the significance of its collections.

The said discourse leads to the considerations that IAM specifically avoids of putting its collections up on the wall in order to attract local visitors, who do not consider the museum’s collection ‘as a part of their identity’ and still perceive archaeology as an elitist discipline. Today, as in the past, collections are perceived as an expression of identity and Turkish people consider the collection of Topkapi Palace as a part of their identity, while the collection of IAM remains distant to them. Undoubtedly, IAM is a significant actor in the field culture in Turkey not only for its extremely valuable collection but also for being the first museum of the Ottoman Empire and therefore, it aims at attracting local visitors by putting emphasis to its strong links to Ottoman history, a rather familiar concept for Turkish people.

The discovery of the Marmaray foundlings, which have literally changed the history of Istanbul and drawn the attention of all archaeologists worldwide to the city, is a historical turning point for IAM. Nonetheless, given the fact that the most highlighted artifacts are considered as the most important ones; it would be safe to claim that the museum does not deem the Marmaray foundlings as most favorite items of its collection. Unlike its contemporary peers with similar collections in the EU, the museum does not seem to have rather socio-cultural concerns such as raising awareness for being a fellow local of Istanbul through the information of a greater mass of people on the history of the city by means of the collection and creating a platform for the discussion of the very issues of Istanbul.

Despite the differences in the experience with the EU; in today’s conjuncture, the social policy issues stand at the heart of cultural policy and museums are the very places to actualize social change for the good of the society. Museums have been drawn into the center of the culture policies as a tool to form a participative community and raise the level of cohesiveness through their collections. It’s through community oriented policies that museums generate visitors and touch people’s lives. Therefore, even though IAM may manage to increase the number of its visitors through customer oriented policies, it still requires pursuing community oriented policies in order to get closer to the people.

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