National museums in Cyprus: A Story of Heritage and Conflict

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Publicerad: 2011-09-30


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


Cyprus; as a former colony with a turbulent history; falls under the category of the “new emerging nation-states” (Aronsson 2011: 47). Museums are employed to construct; reinforce and project specific national narratives. Run exclusively by various ministries and the vertical bureaucratic system of decision-making that entails; these museums project a cultural policy that is unavoidably influenced by political situations. Far from being representative of universal values; the museums on both parts of this divided country focus on their territorial identities and claims. The construction of direct; strong narratives amidst political and cultural conflicts often implies silencing minority voices or voices of opposition to the prevalent narrative.

Archaeology; the discipline that brings a nation closer to its distant roots; is used to support claims on the land. The emphasis that the Greek Cypriot government and other bodies place on archaeology (majority of the museums in South Cyprus) is justified within the discourse of Hellenism and its twin pillars: antiquity and Christianity. On the other hand; the Turkish Cypriot administration places more emphasis on the historical aspect rather than the archaeological one. Its main museums focus on aspects of the Ottoman past of the island – claiming; in this sense; their share of it.

The establishment of museums in Cyprus seems to fall into three main phases: the first one extends from the last quarter of the nineteenth century until 1955; the second refers to the period between 1955 and 1974 and the third to the period after 1974. Each of these phases has its own character; which is defined by the historical events of the period; but also by the cultural preoccupations and influences Cyprus receives during this time; while it retains in the case of the two subsequent phases certain characteristics of the previous periods.

The first phase is characterized by colonial influences along with a strong wish to claim ownership of the local cultural heritage by local agents. The beginning of the interest in cultural heritage has its roots into the colonial appreciation of the Hellenic past of the island. This phase ends with the struggle against British rule starting in 1955. Due to the dominance of archaeology during this phase; the Cyprus Museum was chosen as a case study.

The second phase is characterised by the need to commemorate the struggles and suffering of both Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. This phase starts with the struggle against British rule (1955-59) and ends with the Turkish invasion in 1974. One Greek Cypriot (the Struggle Museum) and one Turkish Cypriot museum (the Canbulat Museum) are used as case studies for this period.

Finally; the third phase is characterised by the need to preserve and promote a growing sense of national identity. At the same time; Cyprus was looking towards the west for a European future and eventually signed the accession to the EU in 2003. The State Gallery of Contemporary Art will help us demonstrate the conflicts between the old and the new.


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