Turkey Can’t Safeguard Cultural Artifacts in Its Museums

In January, an archaeologist at the Zeugma Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of ancient mosaics, committed suicide by throwing herself off an eight-storey building. In her suicide note, 33-year-old Merve Kacmis said she could no longer endure the bullying from her superiors at the museum, located in Gaziantep in southeast Anatolia. They had accused her – falsely – of stealing 150 artifacts that had gone missing. “I didn’t do it, I’m innocent,” Kacmis protested in her note.

The death of the young archaeologist has shone a light on what appears to be rampant corruption at cultural institutions responsible for safeguarding Turkey’s physical heritage.

Six or seven months earlier, Kacmis had been ordered by a superior to take responsibility for about 9,000 artifacts, consisting mainly of mosaics. In Turkey, a museum employee, by law, must act as official custodian of specific artifacts at his or her institution. But when Kacmis noticed that 150 items were missing from the inventory, she declined, even though she knew she risked getting into trouble for refusing to do so. Kacmis filed an official statement outlining her concerns with her head of department, who dismissed it. So did the museum director.

In her suicide note, Kacmis accused both – along with another employee in the museum’s storehouse – of bullying and harassing her for more than six months, firstly by trying to force her to take responsibility for the collection, and then by accusing her of lying about the missing items.

After her death, an investigation carried out by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism confirmed Kacmis’s account: artifacts were indeed missing, and bullying was an institutional problem at the museum.

In fact, there had been problems at Zeugma Museum ever since it opened in 2011, and Kacmis was not the first to report them. A member of the ticket-office staff who reported alleged corrupt activity to the municipality had been sacked for being a whistleblower. Rumors of a robbery at Zeugma Museum have circulated since 2017. Several employees who asked the culture ministry to investigate instead found themselves demoted.

The ministry’s own report last February into the Kacmis case stated that only 10 items were missing, not 150 as she had claimed. Still, Izzet Guven, the lead investigator into the archaeologist’s death, found a large number of discrepancies in the museum’s records. More than 2,000 items stored in the museum did not even appear on its inventory. In October, the Court of Accords, the body that audits public spending, revised that number down to 100. Either way, their whereabouts are still a mystery and the allegations of theft remain uninvestigated.

Zeugma Museum is not the only institution to have “lost” items supposedly under its care. More than 2,000 artifacts have gone missing from Turkey’s museums in the last decade. They include 302 paintings from the State Art and Sculpture Museum in Ankara and an even more astounding 404 pieces of artwork from Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Museum – dedicated to the 16th century Ottoman architect credited as one of the world’s first earthquake engineers and who designed the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul, among others.

Some pieces turn up occasionally. In 2019, an oil painting by the 20th century modernist, Feyhaman Duran, that had once hung in the State Art and Sculpture Museum was found in a vault at a local auction house in Istanbul. The auction house claimed the culture ministry had known the painting was there all along.

One hopes that the tragic suicide of a blameless young woman will focus attention on the criminality that lurks behind those entrusted with guarding the country’s patrimony. (There is suspicion that many of the “lost” paintings and other artifacts are discreetly displayed in the homes of private collectors.) Sadly, it is a vain hope. As long as the corruption is not even acknowledged, let alone punished, the list of “lost” artifacts will keep on growing.

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.