This strange display of cultural diversity

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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game