Turkey grasps the opportunity to rediscover culture in times of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic humanity is facing and struggling with since the end of 2019 inevitably impacts the field of culture worldwide. Burcu Özdemir, a culture and tourism expert at the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism illustrates in this interview the impact of the crisis in this sector and on her daily work. A graduate from Ankara University with a specialization in archaeology, Ms Özdemir was seconded by Turkey to the World Heritage Centre at UNESCO Headquarters in 2014. She rejoined the Ministry earlier this year as Chief of the Unit for Combatting Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property.

How is Turkey coping with COVID-19 and what were the measures taken?

Turkey is addressing this pandemic from both a medical and social perspective. While the health sector is focused on the treatment of patients, the government has imposed restrictive measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Currently, there is a partial curfew on weekends from 8 pm. to 10 am.; the population older than 65 and younger than 20 have permission to be outdoors on weekdays only between 10 am. and 4 pm. Restaurants and cafes are open only for takeaway services.

Like in most countries around the globe, the tightening and relaxation of measures depend on the infection rate of COVID-19 and the number of cases. The Turkish scientific medical council meets regularly to examine the situation and gives recommendations to the government accordingly.

Due to the COVID-19 measures, schools and universities have been closed in Turkey. Teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms, visits to art places and museums suspended. There is something magical about entering a space surrounded by authentic artworks, objects, and artefacts not visible elsewhere.

Lydian Stela (Anatolia) returned to Turkey in September 2020 in exhibition on the museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara

How has your daily work and activities dedicated to the protection of cultural heritage been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular the archaeological sites which are especially at risk in the lockdown period?

The challenging battle of mankind against COVID-19 outbreak has inevitably impacted the field of culture – one of the main elements of civilization, humanity as well as the identity of people. More specifically, as to archaeological sites, the lockdown made them physically inaccessible, obliging the closure of the sites, museum complexes and open-air museums.

Innovative solutions to counter these unplanned closures have been found. Our resilient response to COVID-19 includes virtual activities, museum and site tours, as well as other activities on the official website and social media accounts of the Ministry, accessible to everyone. More than 20 virtual museums and sites can be visited at: https://sanalmuze.gov.tr

Small exhibitions or competitions have also been shared via social media: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. These initiatives have opened up an undiscovered world during this difficult period to people who did not have much interest in archaeological sites before. One of the main obstacles or challenges preventing such discovery for a large number of people in modern life is time. Due to busy schedules and long working hours, most people rarely have time to explore culture. During lockdown, people caught up by spending more time reading books and papers, and also by developing interests in culture and related activities.

In response, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey initiated virtual activities with official and reliable information on museums, sites and world history to attract people’s attention. A team of IT professionals and specialists at the Ministry worked together to produce content and monitor these activities. In light of the feedback, the pandemic has allowed people to deeply discover and understand their past.

How do you, as decision-maker, manage the current situation from a human and heritage point of view? Can you tell us more about post-COVID measures that you plan to put in place when the situation goes back to normality? 

The pandemic has an impact on the touristic sites and the economy in Turkey as all over the World. Considering the long-term implications of the crisis, in particular for World Heritage and archaeological sites, Turkey is developing measures to build a more resilient tourism economy in the post COVID-19 environment.

Containing the virus is of primary importance and we prioritize to protect the health of our staff first. We are committed to do everything to meet this, implementing all necessary prevention measures. Our workplace is compliant with disinfection, social distancing measures, flexible working hours and protective equipment.

Our focus being on the protection of cultural heritage, the monitoring process, the security measures and the conservation projects have never been interrupted. Extra camera and surveillance systems have been set up, taking action before illegal activity happens.

All sectors in the world will be experiencing a challenging time. Essential will be the role that international organisations like UNESCO will, in collaboration with the State parties, play in creating synergy at international and regional levels to develop the culture sector in the post-COVID period. Peace, mutual understanding and respect will have even more importance after the pandemic; culture is the bridge between them.

From a gender perspective, is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your relations with your colleagues?

Women are most affected by the side effects of this pandemic. The closure of schools and the switch to online learning has not been easy for single mothers and mothers with dependent children, who have to stay at home and take care of their children. A number of my female colleagues are single mothers; we do our best to support them.

Isolation and confinement are difficult for me. I am a very social person who loves travelling, meeting up with friends and taking part in group activities. In dealing with the changes in my usual routine and activities, I have resorted to staying in constant virtual contact with my family and reconnecting with long distance relatives and friends.

The protection of cultural heritage is a critical component in these times. It is reported that Turkey fights rising tide of antiquities trafficking. Are there any events in the last months you could share with us?

Our department works in close collaboration with the national and international security and police services. In turn, with our help, these services have prevented smuggling activities nationally and internationally during the past months.

In addition, while the work of the ministry mainly focuses on preventing illicit activities in the field and limiting vulnerability, an increasing number of Anatolian artefacts have recently been identified in online sales in European markets, most probably looted through illicit excavations. Distinctive signs such as some muds, branches or broken pieces showed the artefacts not to have been professionally treated.

In light of this information, I strongly believe that in addition to the precautions and measures taken by the source countries, the market countries should also take steps to monitor the online sales in their country and to initiate the necessary legal actions.