This strange display of cultural diversity

I love the idea that Mehmed II's capture of Constantinople was 'the interaction of cultures'
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The Independent Online

Picking up the massive and sumptuous catalogue to the Royal Academy's new show, The Turks, I was distinctly surprised to see forewords by a pair of unusual authorities. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, and our own beloved Mr Blair have taken time out from their busy schedules to pen heartfelt recommendations of this show, and to draw lessons from its spectacle.

Picking up the massive and sumptuous catalogue to the Royal Academy's new show, The Turks, I was distinctly surprised to see forewords by a pair of unusual authorities. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, and our own beloved Mr Blair have taken time out from their busy schedules to pen heartfelt recommendations of this show, and to draw lessons from its spectacle.

For Mr Erdogan, the show demonstrates that the ancestors of modern- day Turks, the Seljuks and Ottomans, were "committed patrons of the arts", and proves the point that "cultural diversity is a source of richness for all nations". Mr Blair was delighted to discover that the Ottoman empire was "one of the greatest empires the world has ever known ... something we should understand and reflect on". The modern-day lesson? "It demonstrates that the interaction of different cultures in our world is crucial if we are to survive."

This seems rather a partial interpretation, to say the least. I love the idea that Mehmed II's siege and capture of Constantinople in 1453, to name one episode, can be characterised as "cultural diversity" or "the interaction of different cultures". Of course, what the two of them are really talking about is a big contemporary political question, explicitly raised by the Turkish Prime Minister: the future accession of Turkey to the European Union.

If that question were not in the air, and if the Turkish government were not desperately keen to further the process, then, of course, we would not be reading prefaces to smart London exhibitions by such unexpected authorities. Probably we could live with that, but it seems unlikely, too, that we would be seeing such an exhibition at all. Far from being "meticulously planned", as the Turkish Prime Minister says, the Royal Academy's president says on the very next page that it has been put together "with almost unseemly haste".

For something put together with such haste, it is full of some quite incredible treasures, and it is pretty clear that the Topkapi Museum has been told firmly to send half its best things to London in the Turkish national interest. This sort of thing does happen from time to time. The British Museum was leant on to provide a spectacular Chinese show to coincide with a Chinese state visit a year or two back. Museums planning a show like this will welcome the official help of embassies and foreign governments. But in such cases, some serious questions start to arise.

In the instance of the British Museum's Chinese show, in 1999, it was striking that very few of the exhibits were drawn from the museum's own magnificent collection; perhaps to avoid any demands for their return, or perhaps to allow the Chinese state to advertise some of the treasures of their own museums. In any case, the museum was required to put on the show only three years after their last Chinese show, and subjected, no doubt, to pressures we can't guess at.

The present Turkish show displays some of those political pressures, and anyone who knows anything of the history will find the emphasis distinctly peculiar from time to time. Although the catalogue is admirable and honest, the explanations in the exhibition itself are very strange. Mehmed II's conquest of Constantinople was one of the great events of history; here, it is casually referred to in the middle of a sentence, as if it were part of a general peaceful movement westwards.

A page of a Greek historian, Kritovoulos, from the 1460s, working in Mehmed's court, is explained in a way which exemplifies the problem. Mehmed, we are told, "had a strong interest in Greek and Latin texts". The book, it goes on without comment, was dedicated to Mehmed and praises him as equal to Alexander the Great. Come on: it doesn't take a lot to work out that Mehmed captured a Greek city, acquired its scholars and poets as he acquired its treasures, and demanded a certain degree of sycophancy from them. Cultural diversity? Really?

I don't suggest for a second that explicit political pressure was placed on the organisers of this, or other, exhibitions on such points. Almost certainly, if it had been made explicit, any scholar of integrity would have put up firm resistance. But what I do think creeps in is a wary sense that some points, however true, might be tactless. It might not do, for instance, to allude to the greatness of Constantinople before 1453.

The most welcome and civil approach to the whole subject might be, might it not, to trace the proud history of the Turkish race all the way back to their origins in northern China in 600 or so, however tenuous it might seem to a British audience, however uneasy tales of racial descent now make us feel?

The dilemma, for an institution, is insoluble. You can have these wonderful treasures; you must, however, be polite in return. I don't doubt that the organisers of these exhibitions successfully resist many unreasonable suggestions; I often have a feeling, though, that they lose other battles, and have to be philosophical about it. As in most such cases, you can only say to the prospective visitor: enjoy the show, but then go and read a book about the subject. Those, at any rate, aren't yet sponsored by governments.

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