Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


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There I was in a newly opened museum in Konya that was entirely bereft of other visitors, no doubt in part because it was called the Sahipata Vakıf Müzesi, a name that gave no clue, specially to a foreigner, as to its contents. 

Admiring some hanging porcelain ornaments, I raised my camera to take a picture. “Yasak (Forbidden)!” came the immediate command from some jobsworth of a guard.

If there’s anyone in the country who has visited more of Turkey’s smaller museums than me I’d love to meet them. As a result of my work, first for Lonely Planet Turkey and now for Sunday’s Zaman, I can never pass a museum without popping my head round the door to see what’s cooking. But if there’s ever anyone else in there it’s a miracle, unless by chance admission is free which certainly helps to pull in families with time on their hands. The Müze Kart (Museum Card) that lets Turks visit all the country’s museum for a very reasonable annual fee has increased the number of visitors to some properties. Still, I’m rarely in danger of being bowled over in the rush.

Unfortunately most Turkish museums are hardly the most enticing of places. In the first place they’re usually stuck out in the sticks where no one is likely to find them. Then they’re usually housed in buildings designed for show rather than practicality, hence oodles of empty space coupled with display cases designed for a less demanding era. Finally, they’re usually staffed by the least visitor-friendly of people. Most still adhere to the same rigid set of opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 8.30am to noon, then 1pm to 5pm. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that it’s amazing to me how often I arrive at a museum at 11.50am when it’s hardly worth buying a ticket for a scant 10 minutes, or at 12.05pm when the staff will be eating their lunch in the lobby and will flatly refuse to “open” the museum (ie unlock the door and turn on the lights).

Once I arrived at Fethiye Museum at 4.30pm. “Closed,” the ticket seller announced.

I pointed at the sign listing the opening hours. “No it isn’t,” I retorted. “It doesn’t close until 5pm.”

With a heavy sigh the man lumbered out from behind the desk, unlocked the door to the archaeological section of the museum and turned on the lights. It took me less than 10 minutes to look round. Then we went through the same show of put-uponness before he would open the ethnographical section for me. I was through and ready to go by 4.50pm.

“How many visitors did you have today?” I asked the ticket seller.

“Oh, only you!” he airily replied.

Then there’s the labeling which usually sticks to stating the blindingly obvious (“pot”, “plate” etc etc) while staying silent on the age or provenance of artefacts. Alternatively it goes for grabbag dating, describing an item, for example, as “Byzantine (330-1453)” as if artefacts made in the fourth and 15th century were indistinguishable.

In the circumstances it comes as little surprise to learn that precious silver items returned to Uşak from the United States after a legal battle were then stolen and replaced with replicas, a swap that went unnoticed for some time. I’ve visited the Uşak Museum three times and never had to share its exquisite treasures with a single other visitor. The temptation for the staff must have been phenomenal. More alarmingly, newly excavated gold items were recently stolen from Mardin’s much busier museum where one might have hoped that security arrangements would be more stringent.

At times I’ve been driven to despair by the sad state of museums whose wonderul contents deserved so much better. “Privatisation,” I’ve muttered and “A good dose of Thatcherism,” which goes against every socialist instinct in my body but which might at least mean an injection of modern museological ideas into the picture. If I had my way those museums housed in the most out of the way places would be sold and some of the proceeds of the sale used to buy smaller, more suitable properties in which to house their contents. These would come with museum shops and cafes aimed at generating some funds to support the museum, natch.

But at last there are signs of movement on the museum front. One of the first to turn its hands to state-of-the-art presentation was the Bursa City Museum which installed replica shops, videos, headsets, a shop and a café, thereby turning itself into an inviting place for a day out for all the family. Now others are following down the same path. I think of Çorum’s unexpectedly splendid museum and of the new visitor arrangements at the Mevlana Museum (really a shrine) in Konya. Even İskenderun’s new Maritime Museum gets it right with cardboard figures standing beside the showcases featuring special captions aimed at children.

BKG, a company associated with Bilkent University in Ankara, has taken on the running of the visitor facilities at museums that once housed Dösim souvenir shops. They’re doing a great job, which gives me hope that in time some of the smaller local museums may also get a much-needed facelift.


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