When Museums are No Longer Museums

Everything is changing as each new day passes. The numbers of people falling ill with the COVID-19 increase in many places. Voices speaking out for equality continue to rise. And monuments to people no longer considered heroes are being torn down.

Museums are prime victims of this overall social disorder. Once refuges of calm retreat, the missions of many are being questioned. They are transforming themselves in response to calls for decolonization and fair representation. In addition, many museums are experiencing grave problems of financial solvency after months of being closed to their public, whether local residents or visitors to their communities.

In the midst of all of this change, or do we call it turmoil, the president of Turkey decided to transform the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. This amazing landmark that has dominated the Istanbul skyline started its life as an Orthodox church. It has functioned as a museum for years, allowing visitors to the city on the Bosporus to learn about its rich multicultural religious heritage.

About five years ago, I finally had the opportunity to visit Istanbul. For many years, my friend whom I’ve referred to has Graduate School Best Friend (GSbf) spent her summers in her apartment on the Asian side of Istanbul. I took a detour of a few days to the city she calls her home away from home before we both headed to Greece for a conference. I fell in love!

view from the apartment

GSbf and I have a history of attending conferences together (see November 4 post). The location five years ago was Ioannina, my ancestral home and site of my doctoral research; the topic was the topic was Jewish Communities Between East and West. GSbf would finally get to see the storied Ottoman city where I’d spent a year of my life and I would see hers.

In Istanbul (that’s Greek for “in the City,” “στην Πόλη”), she showed me some of her favorite sites – the market, museums, lovely places to sit and drink a coffee. The Hagia Sofia was on my to-see list.

Of course, museums were among our first destinations. The Galata area was the location of the Jewish Museum (it has since moved to another site). We walked there from the ferry stop. It was in one of the city’s synagogues, so like Jewish museums worldwide, displays of ritual objects are alongside history and cultural artifacts.

Torah scrolls
ethnographic section

A crazy taxi drive through crammed Istanbul traffic took us to the Istanbul Modern. The exhibits were great.

Kericam Guleryuz Trolleybus Driver

I really liked this installation

Afterward, we needed to recover from both the crazy traffic and the amazing museum with a treat – an equally modern flourless chocolate cake infused with sumac (I had to lick the plate it was so good).

Another day, we took a boat up to Bosporus to visit the Sadberk Hanim Museum located in a 19th century mansion. Our day transported me to the Ottoman luxuries a century ago. The museum is a treasure house in a beautifully maintained historic building.

Of course, afterwards, we feasted at a sea-side restaurant.

But I’m wandering in my memories. Amidst these visits and food adventures, the trip to Hagia Sophia was our first stop. I’ve had several opportunities to visit Greek Orthodox churches and mosques. In elementary school, my mother wanted me to learn Greek, her mother tongue. I spent three years, two days a week after school in St. Nicholas Cathedral in Pittsburgh. During my work in Cleveland in the late 70s, I was a regular fixture documenting traditional culture in several of the city’s Greek churches. My husband and I were honored as the second non-Muslims invited to the new masjid in Tulsa. I was thrilled a number of years ago to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem while there for a conference a number of years ago.

The Hagia Sophia brings the two traditions – so historic to this amazing city and region – together. Beautiful Arabic calligraphy is juxtaposed with the iconography of the church. Such a thrill to be able to wander freely throughout this historic architectural monument. I loved seeing the images documenting the history of the unique building.

This 10th century mosaic shows Mary (the Theotokis) holding the Christ Child. Justinian to her left is holding the Hagia Sophia and and Constantine is presenting her the city of Constantinople. From a distance, who could tell these were mosaics.

Also visible were the four Seraphim (God’s protectors with six wings). These are the angels closest to God. Islam shares its roots with Judaism and Christianity. And so some imagery is also shared.

A storm of outrage has followed this extreme change to a piece of our world heritage. The Turkish government has said the building will remain open to the public. They will not harm the historic, ages old Christian images. And the museum will share with a holy place, though I cannot imagine it never ceased being a holy place.

And, the Turkish government had pledged not to remove the Hagia Sophia cat, Gli: https://hagiasophiaturkey.com/gli-cat-hagia-sophia/. After some time wandering, I turned a corner and there he was – totally at home and comfortable.

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