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Breaking the silence of our museums in Cyprus

By Melissa Hekkers

A ‘cry of protest’ is the momentum behind the contemporary art intervention set to open its doors to the public on Friday evening, on the occasion of the International Museum Day (IMD).

“It’s a voice that is trying to help museums and museum concepts to come closer to people,” said Iosif Hadjikyriakou, art historian and curator of the exhibition at the House of Hatzigeorgakis Kornesios, considered as the Cyprus Ethnological Museum, which will offer 10 site-specific art installations – each by different creators – at its premises.

Set within the capital’s Old Town, the House of Hatzigeorgakis Kornesios – an official interpreter or dragoman of Cyprus during Ottoman times – is perhaps one of the most overlooked museums of Nicosia. Such benign neglect spurred Hadjikyriakou to respond to a Department of Antiquities invitation to curate an exhibition around the theme set by the International Council of Museums (ICON) for this year’s International Museum Day.

Annually, this day is an occasion to raise awareness regarding how important museums are in the development of society, while 2017 was chosen to lead the series of events with the theme: ‘Museums and contested histories: saying the unspeakable in museums’.

“The initial idea was to use the Archaeological Museum,” says Hadjikyriakou. “We have Hatzigeorgakis who is ‘unspeakable’ in his all, and so is this space … this space consists of Hatzigeorgakis’ story.

“There is also the story of the actual house, which is even older than Hatzigeorgakis, and the house was lived in many years after Hatzigeorgakis, too. Specifically, there were two descendants of Hatzigeorgakis that lived here up until the end of the Seventies,” he reveals.

Justifying his choice of space for its deep history, but also for the multifaceted layers that could potentially be read by artistic interventions, Hadjikyriakou somewhat dichotomized this year’s theme, choosing to maintain the ‘unspeakable’ part to match the chosen space’s nature, and in turn embrace a philosophical approach to the dialogue he wants viewers to have with old and new artefacts as they visit the museum.

“I kept only the ‘unspeakable’ part in the widest meaning it can have: unspeakable as regards everything,” says Hadjikyriakou as he grabs a cushion from the museum’s rest area.

“Even this cushion is unspeakable, but a pillow can tell you many things,” he adds with a smile, a connotation he uses to refer to Evros Evriviades’ artwork, to be found in a room further down the corridor.

“A pillow is unspeakable, yet it talks somehow,” he adds philosophically.

Museum stance

This philosophy is also what brings us back to talking about the underlying voice Hadjikyriakou aspires to awaken through this occasion. Particularly, it is the silence, static, dormant and perhaps this stereotypical nature of museums that Hadjikyriakou is contemplating.

“Museums have a tendency to ‘clean’ everything and merely show objects as objects. Science usually does the same thing in the way it handles objects. They may tell you about a vase, for example, and give you all the information with regards to what it is made of, how it is decorated, which factory made it… You will know everything about the vase, but you will not know who bought it, who owned it, and what its use was,” muses Hadjikyriakou, as he makes me understand that the human angle is perhaps what’s lacking here.

“Objects exist because someone made them or someone used them or is using them. Otherwise they have no reason to exist.

“If museums show objects from a non-existence point of view, museums will, slowly, slowly, have no reason to exist and, today, museums – many museums – have no reason for existing.”

Notably, museums all around the world have for some years begun making themselves more interactive, incorporating educational programmes within their space and offering other activities to attract visitors.

In agreement, Hadjikyriakou goes on to say that museums “have started to change their approach towards people, but they haven’t changed the actual concepts of museums … the concept of museums I think is what should change”.

“In November we inaugurated a new museum in Livadeia in Larnaca, which has to do with baskets. We did something new, a new concept, a new museum, a place where exhibits come into contact with you as you enter.  And you can touch them, smell them and walk amongst them,” he reveals.

“Of course, one cannot go to the archaeological museum and touch everything,” continues Hadjikyriakou. “But there is a way to make a human (you and I) to feel his or her human relationship with an object.

“What we tend to see today is a series of objects which have peculiar names, and if you haven’t studied that specific field you may not even know what it is and what they were used for.

“What we need to know is, for example: this big bowl with all these people drawn on it, what did they do with it? And how was the world when they were using it? And how were the other bowls in surrounding countries like at the time? This will make you understand more, otherwise you just see objects and decide if it’s nice or not.

“Are we interested in seeing things which are nice or not?” he considers.

Breaking current norms

To this end, Hadjikyriakou believes contemporary art is one of the means that can be used to change the current standing of museums; something one can experience for themselves at the museum this evening.

“I want victors to duck, I want them to observe, I want them to get into the process of noticing the details,” he says.
And as I probe the fine line between artistic intervention, the representation of reality and the confusion this may create for viewers, Hadjikyriakou defends his cause.

“When you know that there are contemporary artworks being displayed in the museum, you look out for them. The fact that you are not sure if something is an artwork or not means that I have achieved my purpose. It means you reflected upon on it.

“When you enter a space filled with ancient things, you look at them and you think they all belong there. This is wrong – they don’t all belong there. This doesn’t belong here,” he tells me, pointing to a carpet ahead. “That chair doesn’t belong here, that lampshade doesn’t belong here; in reality, they are fake and I come in and put even more fake items, in order to make you say: hang on, I thought this doesn’t belong here.”

In order to achieve his aim, Hadjikyriakou selected 10 artists based on how invasive each of these artists are within spaces.

“I approached artists who are discreet in their interventions,” he reveals. “There are artists who do this kind of work, but they have a very strong presence. I don’t judge this negatively; they just couldn’t take part in this exhibition because their work would have been too loud. I wanted a very discreet intervention of dialogue.

“What we achieved, or, at least, the aim, is not for our artwork to be in conversation with the artefacts of the museum only, it is to give, with our artwork, the key for visitors to read the artefacts of the museum.”

Yet it is also perhaps through the research of the 10 artists in question, who individually evoke a certain aspect of the House of Hatzigeorgakis – whether this has to do with the 1804 revolution against Hatzigeorgakis himself in 1804, the Piki sisters that lived in the house, certain objects or the story of the house itself – that one gets immersed further into the space.

The newly-planted mulberry tree in the yard of the House, an artistic intervention by Maria Anaxagora and a reference to an attempted escape by the ill-fated dragoman Hatzigeorgakis, by climbing the mulberry tree to jump over the House’s wall, is only an indication of the turn the Ethnological Museum took during the week. And it’s now open for your eyes only.

Participating artists include Maria Anaxagora, Evros Evriviades, Maria Ioannou, Orestis Kalvaris, Loizos lympios, Melina Shoukouroglou, Antonis Tziarrides, Hourik Torosian, Christina Shiakola and Anna Fotiadou.

‘Unspeakable’ is curated by Iosif Hadjikyriakou, in a collaboration with the Department of Antiquities and the Phivos Stavrides Foundation-Larnaca Archives.

International Museum Day

Every year since 1977, International Museum Day (IMD) has been organised worldwide on or around May 18 by the International Council of Museums.

This day is intended to raise awareness on the key role museums play in the development of society, with events being organised from the US to Oceania, Africa, Europe and Asia, confirming the day’s international popularity.

Over recent years, International Museum Day has seen its highest participation, with almost 30,000 museums organising activities in more than 120 countries to mark the occasion.

This year, the world community of museums began celebrating International Museum Day yesterday, with worldwide events and activities planned to celebrate the annual cultural date lasting a day, a weekend, a whole week or, sometimes, even weeks on end.

The theme chosen for IMD 2017 is ‘Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums’.

This focuses on the role of museums which, by working to benefit society, become hubs for promoting peaceful relationships between people. The theme also highlights how the acceptance of a contested history is the first step in envisioning a shared future under the banner of reconciliation.

Locally, exhibitions, events and activities have been launched in celebration of IMD at museums across the island.

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