A new exhibition at Istanbul’s SALT Galata exhibition and conference center presents the rich and intricate story of archaeology in the Near East in a chronological narrative around selected archaeological sites.
Exploring archaeological activities in social, cultural and political contexts across a wide geographical area spanning from Greece to Egypt, “Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914” examines local and foreign archaeological initiatives undertaken across the lands of the Ottoman Empire over two centuries.Taking as a starting point the inauguration of the British Museum, one of the world’s first modern museums, and following the development of the Museum of Islamic Pious Foundations in the Ottoman Empire (now the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts), the exhibition explores transformations in the history of the Ottoman Empire while also focusing on the Western interest in the cultural heritage of the classical era.
The principal materials in the exhibition include reports by Western and Ottoman explorers. These books share the experiences of traveling across the region with plans, maps, documents and photographs explaining the race to attain artifacts for the Imperial Museum in the Ottoman Empire (now the Istanbul Archaeology Museums). These accounts are corroborated by objects excavated and transported from major archaeological excavation sites in Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt to Istanbul at the time, according to exhibition organizers.
The main theme of the exhibition is the story of how an interest in the past transformed into a “struggle” over artifacts in the mid-18th century. By the 19th century, a shift in the motivation for archaeological activity – which had originally pursued the origins of European civilization – later became eclipsed by the desires of imperialism.
Ottoman investment in archaeology was based on the rise of historical consciousness, which emerged in parallel to these imperialistic arguments. In the exhibition, the changing perspective on the practice of archaeology is addressed by emphasizing the interaction between European and Ottoman actors.
“Scramble for the Past” was conceptualized and prepared by Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik and Edhem Eldem. A commissioned installation by Celine Condorelli functions as a support structure for the exhibition, with graphic design by Aslı Altay. In addition, two specially created installations by artists Mark Dion and Michael Rakowitz further address issues raised by the conceptual framework of the exhibition and touch on people’s everyday understanding of archaeology.
Gathering together texts by 15 authors from diverse fields and edited by Bahrani, Çelik and Eldem, a book will be published in English with the exhibition’s title. Prepared as a comprehensive reader, the content introduces a variety of perspectives from different countries that relate to and expand upon topics raised by the exhibition.