Art manager

Halil Ethem Eldem: graduate geologist, volunteer artistic director

Many Turkish cultural institutions, now considered symbols of Republican modernization, were originally founded during the Ottoman era. The Cumhurbaşkanlığı Senfoni Orkestrası (CSO, Presidential Symphony Orchestra) is the continuation of the Mızıka-yı Hümayun (Imperial Orchestra). Mahmud II had an imperial brass band established in place of the forbidden Mehteran Bölüğü (the Mehter division of the Janissary army) in 1826. Two years later, he invited the famous Italian musician Giuseppe Donizetti to Istanbul to conduct the orchestra. Donizetti, who rose to the rank of Brigadier General after more than 20 years of service, was both the instructor and director of the Imperial Marching Band. Other Italian “pashas”, or high-ranking Turkish imperial officers, followed him and taught and led the Mızıka.

Likewise, the first directors of the Müze-yi Hümayun (Imperial Museum) were foreigners invited by the then sultan, Abdülaziz. Originally, the Ottomans liked to collect ancient weapons, which were kept in Hagia Irene, an Orthodox church that served as an arsenal after the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul). In the 19th century, they also began to collect old works. However, these did not constitute a true museum in the modern sense of the term. Instead, the collection of weapons was called “Mecma-i Esliha-i Atika” (Collection of ancient weapons), and the ancient collection was called Mecma-i Asar-ı Atika (Collection of ancient works ).

Mecma became a museum in 1869. When Edward Goold, professor of English in the Ottoman army, was appointed director, the name of the collection was changed to Müze-yi Hümayun and the collection was opened in public. Goold was followed by Terenzio and Dethier, of Italian and German nationality. Dethier contributed to the very foundation of Müze-yi Hümayun by writing the first Asar-ı Atika Nizamnamesi (Charter of Ancient Works), which is considered the constitution of museology in Turkey.

The most important development in the early history of Müze-yi Hümayun was the appointment of Osman Hamdi Bey, the most famous Turkish painter, as director of the museum in 1881. The Ottomans often invited foreigners to build a new institution based on the latest knowledge in the field and hired them to run the institutions until Ottoman nationals could be trained to succeed the foreign director.

Family of artistic directors

Osman Hamdi Bey was the eldest of three brothers who marked the management of art at the end of the Ottoman era and the beginning of the Republic. Osman Hamdi himself ruled the Müze-yi Hümayun for decades, while his brother İsmail Galip Bey was the leading numismatist of the late Ottoman era.

Halil Ethem Eldem, the third of the sons of İbrahim Ethem Pasha – one of the grand viziers of the Ottoman state – succeeded his older brother in the management of Müze-yi Hümayun, which he transformed into the Arkeoloji Modern Müzesi (Museum of Archeology) during the Republican era.

In fact, besides the artistic directors, the Ethem family also raised several diplomats, academics and civil servants. Mübarek Galip, İsmail Galip’s son, was a numismatist like his father. İsmail Galip’s grandson, Sedad Hakkı Eldem, was a prominent architect, while Halil Ethem’s grandson, Edhem Eldem, is a historian, who has published several publications illuminating the history of the family.

Man of science

Halil Ethem Eldem was born June 24, 1861. He first attended school in Istanbul but moved to Berlin, where his father was the Ottoman Ambassador to the German Empire in 1875. After graduating from studies secondary in Berlin, he moved to Zurich, then to Vienna to study geology and chemistry at the Polytechnic (1881-1884). Although he studied natural sciences, he moved to Switzerland for a thesis in philosophy at the University of Bern. After his doctoral studies, Halil Ethem returned to Istanbul.

He worked as deputy director of military factories in Istanbul for four years before working as a translator at the Army General Staff. He also taught geology and chemistry in schools in Istanbul. He is the author of geology and chemistry books for students. He made geological observations at Gebze, where he discovered two fossils that bear his name, rhynchonella ethemi and acrocordi ceras halili.

Halil Ethem moved to Müze-yi Hümayun, months before his father’s death in 1892, to work under the guidance of his older brother, Osman Hamdi. They worked together until Osman Hamdi died. Halil Ethem was eventually promoted to manager of Müze-yi Hümayun.

Man of all eras

Halil Ethem was respected not only by the prominent administrators of the Abdulhamid II era. The Union and Progress Committee (CUP) also trusted him and entrusted him with many critical tasks. He was the head of the commission that collected the antiquities of the Yıldız Palace after the overthrow of Abdülhamid in 1909.

In the same year, the CUP government appointed him mayor of Istanbul, which showed his self-confidence. However, he resigned right after two months as he had no passion for politics or urban development. He became the director of Müze-yi Hümayun after Osman Hamdi’s death in 1910.

Besides the official work, Halil Ethem founded the first archaeological association in Turkey, namely Istanbul Asar-ı Atika Muhipleri Cemiyeti (Istanbul Ancient Works Lovers Association), which was succeeded by Asar-ı Atika Encümeni (Ancient Works Council), a more formal committee founded and sponsored by the Ministry of Education during WWI. Halil Ethem played a key role in its formation.

He was also a member of the Tarih-i Osmani Encümeni (Ottoman History Council) and chaired the Türk Tarih Kurumu (Turkish History Institution). In 1931 he was elected to Parliament and held that post for two terms before his death on November 17, 1938.

During his career he wore many hats, having published works in various fields including geology, chemistry, history, art history and numismatology. He was editor-in-chief of the Tarih-i Osmani Encümeni Mecmuası (Journal of the Ottoman History Council) and Türk Tarih Encümeni Mecmuası (Journal of the Turkish History Council) from 1911 to 1928. He also published popular brochures on museums, including the Topkapı Palace Museum, which he helped found.


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