Re-exhibition of an exhibit aborted 18 years ago

Re-exhibition of an exhibit aborted 18 years ago

“I do not like history,” said the handsome blond boy sitting across me in the small second-year journalism class, where we were discussing news and editorial judgment. He appeared determined to challenge my argument that if you do not know history you cannot do proper journalism. “History is about old things. I need to know what is happening now and look to the future,” he challenged me. Our dialogue turned almost to a confrontation with the student becoming increasingly argumentative over the usefulness of history in modern Turkey. During the interval he explained to me that he also “hated his history lessons at his middle school and that he hated his history teacher.”

That unpleasant incident five years ago came to my mind the other day, when I received the pictures of another student of mine from her trip to Mecca which she visited with her sister and grandmother. Several of her digital postcards on the internet were taken “in front of the Mercure Hotel” and she looked happy all wrapped up, against a concrete background of pastel-colored high-rises which could very easily be mistaken for the Ataşehir neighborhood of Istanbul. 

I was always perplexed by how each one of us perceives history in general, the history of our country, the history of our city of birth or the city where we live. And after living for a long time in this city, by how present Istanbulites perceive their city. How much does history matter for them, which history, what Istanbulites? 

Eighteen years ago the complex question of Istanbul’s history was put forward through Unesco’s Habitat II Human Settlements Exhibition. Also then the idea of a City Museum which had been originally developed by Istanbul’s History Foundation took the form of a special exhibition, with some 200 historians, photographers, planners working for it for 16 months. The concept was that the exhibition would eventually be used for a Museum of the City of Istanbul to be set up by the History Foundation in the future. For that reason, after the end of Habitat II, the exhibits were packed and stored for their future permanent place. 

During the Gezi events Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brought back the idea of a City of Istanbul Museum among his promises to appease the protesters. He said he would build a City Museum at the Gezi Park: a project totally forgotten now. Instead, last October the History Foundation was told to empty the exhibits from their storage place. The exhibits were taken away from storage and were re-exhibited in the old Rum School of Galata in the Karaköy neighborhood of Istanbul.

“We thought of re-staging the exhibition in order to save it from being thrown into the bin and to share it among the Istanbulites; we decided to remind people what was the original plan 18 years ago and to stage a series of events in order to discuss what has happened during these 18 years,” said Prof. Vangelis Kechriotis, the assistant director of the History Foundation. That was how the exhibition “Again and New: World City Istanbul” came into being. 

Last week I visited the exhibition housed in the renovated classrooms of the old Galata School. Aged, faded printed paper, colored sketches, cardboard panels, atmosphere of the 90s. “It is an exhibition of an exhibition,” told Prof. Kechriotis, “it is important that it takes place in this particular building because a Rum school represents a place of memory which by itself points to the need for us to discuss what happened. Also the exhibition reflects in some ways the embarrassment of historiography of that time towards dark periods like the Armenian genocide and September ‘55 events. Of course today all these would have been written very differently.”

While being there, I briefly listened to a speech about the use of the fields in Istanbul. I learned that fruit and vegetable growers were growing their products on the same fields outside the ancient walls of Istanbul since Byzantine times. Among the audience I noticed a few students taking notes. I could not help but remember my second year student who hated history and my other student posing happily before Mercure Hotel with a background reminiscent of Ataşehir. I may sound pessimistic but I think that the project of a City of Istanbul looks more difficult than 18 years ago. But at the same time it gives modern historians an important mission to fight for.