Sunday, August 01, 2010

Stop 3: Museums of Istanbul

The next stop on my tour of museums was Istanbul, “the most inspiring city in the world.”

At least, that’s what the advert  playing on European TV said.

Inspiring?  Perhaps.

Exciting?  Definitely.

My partner and I started our European journey in Istanbul.  Although the tourist sites and the people who’ve already been there recommended that we visit other places in Turkey, partly because this was our first stop (and we included jet lag adjustment time as part of it) and partly because we were there in February (when the high is only a balmy 9 degrees), we spent all of our time in Istanbul.

We had a perfect amount of time; we had time to acclimate to the time and experience the culture, a curious mix of Europe and the Middle East.  In some ways, Istanbul felt a bit like Jerusalem (not surprising; the Ottoman Turks ruled the area for hundreds of years).  The streets followed similar winding patterns, the markets had the same smells and sounds, and the people had a similar animated, brusque style.  That was comfortable for me but caused a bit of culture shock for my partner, who has never visited the Middle East before.  Fortunately, he got over it.

A couple of “top ten” lists on the Web guided our sightseeing selections. Among them were a cruise through the Bosporous (great views, though the open deck was a tad chilly), walking through a downtown park, where we spotted a number of couples taking romantic strolls, visits to the Spice Market and its much larger partner, the Grand Bazaar (which has endless rows of small shops selling leather, jewelry, nautical items, and more in a hauntingly elegant 15th century building and, of course, visits to these museums:

  • Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art.  
  • Hagia Sofia:  
  • Topkapi  Palace.  
  • Istanbul Archeology Museums   
  • Pera Museum.  

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (link is to the Wikipedia article; the museum does not appear to have a website:  The building housing this museum has its own interesting history, which is only partly described.  The building was the private home of Ibrahim Pasha, the Grand Vezir (right-hand man) and close friend of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Apparently, Pasha was powerful and liked to live large.  But his fatal mistake was supporting a son other than that of Suleyman’s favorite wife.  She denounced Pasha as a threat.  He was later executed, and his home and property were taken by the state.

But that history isn’t really what’s on display here. Its exhibitions have two parts: a primary part, which displays classic Turkish and Islamic art and a secondary exhibition of  Turkish  ethnography.

The exhibition of art uses all of the room sin the upper floor of the building (which requires a brief visit outside from the main entrance to the galleries).  The galleries are linked by a hallway running the length of the building, and in which some “teaser” pieces are displayed.

Because of the Islamic prohibition of showing the human figure in its art (it is seen as a form of idolatry), Islamic art focuses, instead, on calligraphy, tapestry, ceramics, and metal work, rather than painting.  Recognizing that I would be inundated with paintings when visiting Western Europe, I welcomed this change of pace and found the art all the more compelling.

Each room covers a distinct theme and time period.  An introductory label in each room—provided in both Turkish and English—provides an overview.  (All labels were bilingual which, I would later learn, is not a consistent practice in museums in providing bilingual labels in Europe.)  Most cabinets provide additional labeling, thematically describing the types of pieces in them or the techniques for creating them.  Combined, the two levels of labels provide a good sense of themes; detailed object labels could have provided more detail, however, to those of us interested in learning more.  (Some were provided, but always wanting to learn more, I would have appreciated more.)

The objects included superb examples of calligraphy, furniture (especially tables for displaying the Koran), ceramics, and intricate metal work (such as gold and silver). The highlight of the art exhibition was the last room: a grand hall (I want to use the term ballroom but know it’s not correct) covered with tapestries and rugs.

The tapestry gallery leads to a courtyard exhibit, from which visitors can enter the ethnography exhibition on the lower level.  As the upper level showed high art, the lower level focused on folk art from the various regions of Turkey.  It consisted of a series of well described dioramas of ordinary life in different regions of the country, and included the lives of agricultural workers, village people, and city dwellers of about 100 to 150 years ago.  People wore native (or relevant) dress, scenery included buildings, plants and scenery, furniture, and crafts reflective of the habitat.  The emphasis throughout the exhibit was on the lives of women.  Walking through this exhibition was like taking a quick walking tour through Turkey.  The only drawback to this part of the exhibit was that the labels were in smaller type and a bit wordy.  Because this exhibition was on the lower level, it might be easily overlooked by visitors, which would be a shame because this exhibit was both fun and enlightening to visit.

The entire museum is designed to be visited in an hour or two.

If I could offer any suggestions for this museum, it would be to provide a comprehensive overview of Turkish and Islamic art at the entry to that part of the museum.  For some of us visiting from Western countries, our knowledge of this art is limited and an explicit overview (which otherwise emerges implicitly through touring the galleries and reading the labels) would help visitors focus their attention, by highlighting key pieces in the exhibition and suggesting aspects of the art that visitors should notice and the criteria used to identify “good” pieces.  The overview might take the form of a multimedia show or video.

Hagia Sofia (  Although officially labeled a museum, this is no traditional museum.  This 1500-plus-year-old building with a 20-story high roof was built as a cathedral by the Byzantines in the sixth century.  After the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, the cathedral was re-outfitted as a mosque.  For example, the tiled artwork of saints with their halos was plastered over and painted with the geographic patterns typical of Islamic art.

After the fall of the Ottoman empire and the establishment of a secular government in Turkey, the building was converted to a museum.  Archeological work continued (including the uncovering of an earlier church on the same site), some of the plaster was removed to expose the earlier tiled artwork, and some explanatory labels were provided to describe the history of this structure and the uses of some of its parts, including the parts at the front used by the clergy.  One thing struck me about the parts of the front of the building used in the Moslem prayer service; they’re remarkably similar to those in a Jewish prayer service.

The museum is designed to be visited with a tour group, but we visited on our own. In practical terms, that meant we did not benefit from some of the narration.  But we were free to roam the place, including visiting the upper level (great exercise—had to walk up countless flights of stairs—but the views, both looking down and outside of the building, were well worth the effort. Although I could appreciate the beauty and pride invested in both the Christian and Islamic artwork in the Hagia Sofia, as well as its impressive height, I could appreciate it better from 6 or 7 stories up.

Topkapi  Palace (  For about 400 years, this palace was the home to the Ottaman sultans.  Now, it’s a museum, which preserves the artwork and lifestyles of the royalty.  The palace sits on a hill overlooking the Bosporus Straits and provides commanding views of Istanbul.

On the one hand, visitors are relatively free to visit whatever part of the palace they choose and that’s open—there’s a large courtyard full of entrances to specific galleries.  On the other hand, most seem to follow an implicit path from one set of rooms to the next, creating lineups and bunch-ups trying to look at the objects.

But the crowds are worth the nuisance, especially the rooms presenting the crown jewels. As befitting the royalty of an empire, the sultans possessed impressive collections of jewels, jewel-encrusted armor, seals, and personal objects made of gold and silver and adorned with jewels.

Also on display in other galleries were uniforms of the royal guard, outfits of the sultans, and religious artifacts and books, instruments and decrees of government, and royal furniture.  Like the crown jewels, these objects reflected the highest levels of craftsmanship.  In addition to artistic merit, each object told an important historical story.  Some told stories of royal decision-making processes, others told stories about relationships with other countries and others told stories of intrigues within the palace.

In all places, the objects were displayed lushly in cases that were not overcrowded and in ways that highlighted the brilliance of the individual pieces.

The extensive labels in Turkish and English (and, in the religious section, Arabic, too) explained the artistic and historical significance of most objects (and the reading is what caused some of the line-ups to form).  Labels for cases of objects—as well as for entire rooms—described the larger context of Ottoman royal life in which these objects were used.

The only suggestion would be to address crowd bunch-ups at objects.  Museum staff might consider repeating labels in other locations near an object so more than one person can read at a time.  Also, in many rooms, objects are only placed along the walls.  Moving some to the center might encourage visitors to scatter more.

Only issue was crowd control—traffic jams in high traffic rooms. Might consider moving some of the pieces around to change the patten from follow thru to scatter; also repeat labels so that people don’t bunch up at them.

Istanbul Archeology Museums  ( is actually a collection of three museums in a single complex. The museums include an archeology museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Museum of Islamic Art. The complex is located physically beside the Topkapi Palace and was once part of the palace grounds. In practical terms, the two sites are a 15-minute walk apart.

The archeology museum is the centerpiece of the complex and is supposed to be one of the most significant museums in Istanbul, and one of the most significant museums of its type in the world.  It was founded in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire by renaissance man Osman Jamdi Rey, a painter, diplomat, and archeologist, whose life work was establishing this museum.

Aiding him in this effort was an Ottoman law protecting cultural artifacts—a  law that the Ottoman Turks enforced.  As a result, governors from all of the provinces would send cultural finds to the capital, and a formidable national collection was established.

The size and quality of the collection are apparent when visiting the galleries, and best exhibited in the galleries of sarcophagi (marble and stone burial boxes).  The  exhibit, which seems to take up half the first floor, shows how people treated death between 2 and 3 millenia before our time.  The extensive scholarship on the subject was apparent in the excellent signage, which described the significance of these objects in historical context, as well as interpreted their symbolism.

But, like the rest of the archeology museum, its age showed, both in terms of general look and in terms of presentation choices.  For example, the large exhibit on sarcophagi had a dead end in it, a situation that designers try to avoid today.

Age was more of an issue in the permanent exhibition on the history of Istanbul.  On the one hand, the exhibit provided an outstanding history, probably more in-depth than most museums.  On the other hand, perhaps that detail was its problem.  While scholarly, it isn’t exactly visitor friendly. The wordy labels themselves often crossed the line between interpretation and serving as a book on a wall, and often got lost in the detail and did not effectively put the work in context. At the same time, the exhibit would have benefitted from an overview gallery, that introduces visitors to the major epochs in Istanbul history, provides a context for the exhibition, and provides both a figurative and literal map to the different parts of the exhibition.

Similarly, a temporary exhibition presented historic objects uncovered when digging for the metro system.  The exhibition was narrow and, while designed to guide visitors in a particular direction, that direction wasn’t always clear.  Furthermore, the objects map, in part, to the epochs in the permanent exhibition, but no such links were made.  Instead, the links were made by station.  But no map of the Metro system was provided in the entrance, much less in the sections of the exhibition, to give visitors a sense of where the objects were found.  For locals, that probably would not be a problem.  But for visitors from other places, especially first-time visitors to Istanbul, this is.

Overall, the gallery and case labels were strong, but object labels provided just a minimum of information, and little, if any, interpretation.

What was most interesting is that, despite the size of the Archeology Museum, we were able to go through it rather quickly and feel like we saw everything. (I admit, I could have stayed longer, read more, and learned more.  As this was my third museum of the day, I was beginning to suffer from visitor fatigue.)

I also wanted to make sure that I left enough time to visit the Museum of Islamic Art.  To be honest, what drew me to this building was the building itself; it’s a beautiful building.  Apparently, it was built by an emporer in the late 15th century.  It’s aptly called the tiled kiosk because its exterior features intricate tile work.  In an ironic twist, the art on display is also tile and ceramics.

This displays pay homage to the most famous tile works in the Ottoman empire, and the room labels describe place the art into the context of both their times and their manufacture, while object labels explain the significance and, if appropriate, manufacture of individual objects.  The exhibition designer took advantage of the nooks and crannies of the original building o dramatically and effectively display the ceramics, while calling attention to the workmanship in the original structure.

Although I did not feel like an expert on Islamic ceramics after my visit, I did feel like an informed viewer, and what I learned here would be helpful in interpreting what I would see in other museums.  

I had little time for this building, less than an hour.  Thanks to the guards, who wanted to close the galleries at 6 pm sharp, the closing-up process began about 20 minutes earlier. But one guard, who could see that I really wanted to study more, kindly let me explore as long as possible.

One other suggestion: the museum did not provide visitors with a map to the galleries and signage with this information—as well as directions to other exhibits on the premises—was limited.

Pera Museum (  The last museum that I visited in Istanbul, is a private museum whose mission is to follow Western standards of display.  Finding the museum itself, however, proved to be a challenge.  Much of that was my own fault—I didn’t print out the map.  But the museum is located near the commercial center of the city, rather than the tourist area, and no street sign exists to direct visitors to the museum (at least, none that I could find).  Using instinct, I eventually happened on the museum.

And I’m glad that I did.  The museum has an unusual collection—weights and measures, and artwork.  On the page, the two collections don’t sound too related, but in the galleries, the story changes.

The weights and measures are displayed like decorative art in many other museums.  Gallery labels describe the emergence of standards in weights and measures in various kingdoms over time, and object labels explained how these larger trends played in the design and building of individual weights and measures.

The low lights of the gallery, the spacious cases which provide each object with appropriate display, and the artful display of objects—like lining up weights in order—emphasized the artisanship in creating these objects.

In other words, the exhibit used weights and measures to tell the commercial history of Istanbul and the empires that ruled it.

In contrast, another permanent gallery told the history of Istanbul and the empires that ruled it through ceramics.  Only choice pieces were displayed—spaciously and dramatically as in the weights and measures gallery.  The knowledge gained from the Museum of Islamic Art I had visited earlier in the Archeology Museum complex came in handy in understanding the objects on display here.

A third exhibition showed everyday life in Istanbul through paintings. One section featured landscape paintings, showing how the city evolved in the past several centuries.

Another section featured paintings of the harem.  Apparently, Western painters were fascinated by the harem.  That they were not allowed in to visit it only deepened their interest. One persistent painter did gain access—and painted what he saw.  I wouldn’t say that inspired others—most of the others’ paintings seemed to be nearly exact copies of the original one, down to the drinks in the hands of people in the picture.

In light of the concerns of copying these days, it’s interesting to see how artists addressed this issue about 150 years ago.

A temporary exhibition explored the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which was built during the height of the Byzantine empire and used for several hundred years. The Ottoman Turks converted the structure for other purposes, although some of the features were not destroyed and became re-integrated into the landscape of the city.

More recently, the site has been explored by archeologists and that, in turn, has provided insights into the past of this site.  Those insights, in turn, provide insights into the larger history of Istanbul.

This theme of the history of Istanbul runs throughout the museum.

The museum also features clear labels, but they felt a bit light on detail.  In most rooms, just the gallery and section had complete labels.  Object labels felt incomplete.  On paintings, for example, they often did not provide the dates of birth and death for the artists, nor the assumed dates of the painting was made (in some cases, dates are just to the nearest century), nor the nationality of the artist, as is typical of other museums.

And some of the case labels seemed a bit like self-promotion, talking about the collecting habits of benefactors of the museum, or provided a similar sort of self-congratulatory comment.

The museum also did one other thing that seemed surprising. When paintings could not be displayed (in some cases, they had been lent to other museums for temporary exhibitions), the museum displayed obvious duplicates in their place.  They said it was to ensure the continuity of the exhibit.

But few museums display duplicates of objects that are out of the case unless it’s an authentic one from the collection.

One more note:  Although I was able to see most of the top museums of Istanbul, I was not able to see all of them.  Of those I missed, the one I would like to have seen is the Islamic Science and Technology Historical Museum.

Summing Up:  A future post on this blog will explore some of the themes in this posting:

  • Traffic flow in museums.
  • Providing visitors with access to exhibits.
  • Labeling.  

Next post:  The Museums of Paris.

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