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Met forced to organise Seljuk exhibition without Turkish loans

For a few years now [1], Turkey has been trying increasingly hard to make life awkward [2] for countries & institutions holding disputed Turkish artefacts. Undeterred by this (or perhaps brimming with bullish over-confidence that Turkey will capitulate), New York’s Metropolitan Museum is attempting to organise a Seljuk exhibition without any loans from Turkey. No actual loan requests have been refused as such, but preliminary discussions indicated that cooperation from Turkey would not be forthcoming, meaning that the Met decided against asking for any loans.

The Seljuks were the Turkish dynasty that existed prior to the Ottomans. as such, Turkey holds by far the largest collection of artefacts from the period. Organising an exhibition without these is significantly harder than it would otherwise have needed to be.

Greece on the other hand has always made a point of continuing to cooperate with Britain over other matters, while maintaining their stance on the Parthenon Sculptures. This is despite many opportunities to block loans for exhibitions, or to not issue permits for British archaeologists etc. Whilst this spirit of cooperation, of not connecting what are in reality disparate items is admirable, I can’t help feeling sometimes that Britain needs to be made to feel a bit less comfortable about their position. The British museum does not deal with the Parthenon Marbles issue in a serious way, because it doesn’t feel that it has to. It has kept up this approach for many years now & everything else continues to happen as normal.

Socrates in discussion with his pupils, Seljuk manuscript from 13thcentury, Istanbul, Topkapi Palace Library [3]

Socrates in discussion with his pupils, Seljuk manuscript from 13thcentury, Istanbul, Topkapi Palace Library

Art Newspaper [4]

No Turkish loans for big Seljuk Turk show planned by the Met
Thorny early discussions with Ankara deterred the US museum but Turkish attitude now appears more conciliatory
By Tim Cornwell. Museums, Issue 261, October 2014
Published online: 09 October 2014

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is organising a major exhibition on the Seljuks, whose medieval Islamic empire expanded from central Asia into much of modern Anatolia in Turkey, without loans from Turkey, The Art Newspaper has learned. Experts fear that loans from any collections in Iran or Russia will also be missing in the Met’s show.

The Met’s problem securing Turkish loans echoes those surrounding the British Museum’s exhibition on the Hajj, which went ahead in London in 2012 without Turkish artefacts after tangled disputes over an inscribed stele with a relief of Herakles, which have yet to be resolved.

The Met can undoubtedly organise the first major modern exhibition on the Seljuks from material in European and US collections, but there is dismay over what may be a missed opportunity for the New York museum and Turkey.

In the past five years, Turkey has pursued a series of claims for a list of what it regards as “stolen” objects in the collections of museums in Britain, Europe and the US. We first reported Turkey’s tough new approach (The Art Newspaper, March 2012, p1).

Despite a change at the top of Turkey’s culture ministry and the country’s museums authority, it appears that the Met did not pursue an official request for loans after thorny initial discussions with Ankara, according to sources familiar with the project. Turkey’s stance may be more conciliatory now. In a statement, its ministry of culture tells us that it is “open to negotiations” with the Met and noted the issue had been “quite inconvenient for both parties”. The Met declined to respond to questions about the exhibition or the current state of restitution claims from Turkey.

The Seljuk period from the mid 11th century to the beginning of the 14th brought an encounter and a mingling between Arab, Persian and Turkish art, scholars say, to create a new visual language after Turkic nomads moved in from central Asia to Turkey.

Without loans from Turkey, and with Iranian loans unlikely unless there is a sudden improvement in relations between the US and Iran, the Met will have to rely on major loans from British and European institutions instead.

The Met’s exhibition could include, scholars suggest, dragon door-knockers from Berlin, some of the earliest Islamic carpets in existence from Copenhagen, works from the great pottery reserves of the British Museum, and stone and figural carving from the Met’s own strong collections. Some of the finest Seljuk Qu’rans are also in Western collections.

Alternative sources

But Turkish loans could have ranged from manuscripts from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul and trophy items, such as an extraordinary steel mirror with gold inlay also housed there, to reliefs from the walls of Konya, the Seljuks’ historic capital in Anatolia.

After delays, the exhibition is now scheduled for early 2016. Museums that have been approached for loans from their Islamic collections range from the British Museum to the David Collection in Copenhagen. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London and Berlin’s Museum für Islamische Kunst would also be obvious sources of loans.

“[The Met] will be able to find Seljuk or Rum material in other collections, but it’s harder work, and they will be missing important pieces,” says Kjeld von Folsach, the director of the David Collection. “It’s a very painful problem. I can understand [the Turks’] position, and their request. But many of these things have been in collections for very long periods. As the world is today, we could be rather pleased that not everything is in northern Iraq or Syria, for the time being,” Von Folsach says.

In 2011, a delegation led by Murat Suslu, then Turkey’s director-general for cultural heritage and museums, went to New York demanding information on 18 items in the Met’s collection. Suslu’s demand reportedly startled senior staff.

Suslu is no longer in the post. The former culture minister Ertugrul Günay, who aggressively and with some major successes launched claims for artefacts in Western museums, was replaced by Omer Çelik.

These disputes, it is said, are neither serving the interests of Western museums nor the Turkish government’s embrace of its Ottoman and Islamic heritage. One Istanbul-based insider called the embargo on loans “an irreparable loss from their point of view to present their state and its history and culture,” in one of the most prestigious venues worldwide. A UK scholar observed of the restitution disputes: “This is really, really sad. I don’t know why some of it can’t be resolved.” In 2005, the Royal Academy in London organised “Turks: a Journey of a Thousand Years”, an exhibition that featured an array of Turkish loans from Topkapi and elsewhere.