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Istanbul

A Strange Case of a Museum Director: Yusuf Benli

Hakan Gürsoytrak / Throne (Taht), 2013. Written by Àngels Miralda.

Tasked with representing an institution, securing funding, and important organisational structures, the position of director is a demanding task. What happens when it all goes wrong? In this series, we uncover stories of crime, desperation, political defiance, or corruption in museum leadership.

A white long-haired man in a blue shirt stands next to an archaeological dig.

In 2011, archeologist Yusuf Benli was the respected director of Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace and the Konya Museums Director in Central Anatolia. The Topkapı Palace is a major tourist destination in Turkey’s capital, with 3 million visitors annually. But on June 3rd of 2011, investigative journalist Ömer Erbil published an article in the publication Radikal that shook Turkey’s museum community.1 The throne of Sultan Selim III, a piece of design history from the end of the 18th century, is a unique example that shows how the fashions and items of Ottoman palaces were greatly influenced by the court of Louis XVI.2 The journalist revealed that Yusuf Benli had given an order to two female staff members to move the throne to his own private residence.3

Image: Yusuf Benli at an archeological site in Turkey.

In Erbil’s article, an image appeared of several museum staff casually moving the throne as if it were nothing more than a second-hand sofa, transporting the historic and priceless object without any protective packaging or crating, and worse – through the rain. It was claimed that the staff attempted to move the object to an external gate, and once they realised it could not pass through, moved it back to its original storage location.

A group of men walk with a throne in their hands.

Image of Benli’s staff moving Selim III’s throne.

This was only the beginning of the scandal for Benli. According to Hurriyet's report, there were claims that Benli invited his private guests to have breakfast at the Mecidiye Palace in Topkapı, where guests sat and ate on historical furniture, namely the Louis XIV table made of marble. Apparently, stains from these breakfasts on the table weren’t able to be removed.4 Other irregularities soon followed: in Konya, he had listed an archaeological zone as employing 100 people to dig on-site when in reality, there were only four.5 Additional irregularities also included failing to record the income generated by a large number of coins thrown into the Seb-i Arus Pool in the Mevlana Museum. The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism immediately launched an investigation into the matter, but this was also marred by various scandals of its own.

Before the conclusion of the investigation, the two female members of staff who carried out Benli’s orders were moved to new positions in other institutions.6 Criticism arose about the fact that it was the two women rather than the male director who gave the orders who were immediately dismissed, and secondly, that It is a common strategy in institutions that suffer from large scandals to suddenly see everyone involved leave the institution and find strategically dispersed new placements. This mars the investigation and allows the institution to continue without taking accountability for its wrongdoings.

Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul.

Ottoman Emperor Selim III’s throne, displayed at Topkapi Museum, Istanbul.

The image circulated by the media has become a part of history itself. In November 2022, journalist Ihsan Yilmaz wrote about a painting by artist Hakan Gürsoytrak, which is part of the permanent collection of the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum.7 The painting titled Throne (2013) shows a slightly abstracted but visibly recognizable scene of the Topkapı staff moving the infamous object. The image might have faded from newspaper headlines, but the image is strikingly recognizable in the popular Turkish imagination.

Yilmaz describes this painting as having an important function as a “memory refresher.”8 Such a work is a firm reminder that although the art community hesitates to admit it, public museums are neither saints nor flawless. Rather, they are sites that should remain under close scrutiny to avoid corruption and abuse of power and still suffer from insufficient policies to guarantee accountability.

The Topkapı Palace remains one of the top tourist attractions in Istanbul and continues to carry out its duties of maintaining and preserving heritage. In 2017, Ömer Erbil followed up his original article by notifying that the Topkapi Palace had restored the throne and that it has since been placed on public display.9

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