Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Scramble For The Past


Foto Galatasaray / İstanbul – Beyoğlu, 05.1961, black & white negative, 9.5x14.8cm © Maryam Şahinyan

I love Istanbul. Every time I'm there, new galleries, museums and contemporary art project spaces pop up. I walked through the old Imperial Ottoman Bank (now called SALT Galata) in astonishment. Not only because of the beautiful renovation of the building (which includes two posh restaurants, a well-stocked bookstore and great library) but also on account of the exhibitions that are currently on show.


The Ottoman Bank Museum is situated in the basement.  The archives of the bank provide an insight into the economic, social and political climate in the Late Ottoman Empire and early Republican period. Not only was the bank behind a large number of projects during the industrialization period (railroads and mines), it was also the place where armed Armenian revolutionaries drew attention to the massacre of the Armenians .

Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753 -1914 is an exhibition that covers the rise of archaeology in the Near East. Occasionally it is stuffy and dry, but nonetheless I love those shards, bottles, broken chains and old items. The SALT exhibition is not a standard archaeology display. Based on reports of Ottoman and Western researchers, maps and photographs of excavations such as Troy (Turkey) and Baalbek (Lebanon) it outlines a history of archaeology in the former Ottoman Empire : a historiography of archaeology actually. More than a century ago, the Europeans came to the Ottoman Empire to search and dig for antiquities. The British Museum is filled to the brim. Interestingly, there is obviously a tension between the Western claims of empirical, scientific research and the possession and control of Ottoman land and history.

On the third floor - and finally we reach the photography part of this blog - is a fantastic project about the Armenian photographer Maryam Şahinyan. For more than fifty years Şahinyan had a studio on the Istiklal Caddesi, the Turkish equivalent of the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam or Oxford Street in London. Foto Galatasaray was not as well known as Foto Sabah or 19th century predecessors like Sebah & Joailliers or the Abdullah brothers. Maryam Şahinyan photographed the middle and lower classes. By making public the 200,000 photographs from the archive, artist-researcher-curator Tayfun Serttaş gives a face to groups that were marginalized in the Turkish Republic: women, christian religious orders and Armenians. In his beautiful installation Tayfun Serttaş allows us to see the true cosmopolitan character of Istanbul through the eyes of Maryam Şahinyan.

The three different exhibitions are connected by the focus on archival research and reinterpretation of their meaning. In other words, the rectifying of history. Through this methodology SALT puts emphasis on timely, important and often sensitive issues in Turkey (the need to emphasize Turkish identity and ignore or suppress other ethnicities), or in this case Europe (should the archaeological collections in European museums belong there?). The emphasis is on research and it is great that this does not affect accessibility to a wider audience: the place is inviting, the underlying studies converted into visually appealing exhibitions, admission is free, the archives are public and online access is possible. For me, SALT is a successful combination of research, aesthetics and inclusivity.

Kim Knoppers

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