«Reluctant Museums»: between a church and a museum. Displaying religion in Cypriot museums

Presentation “National Museums and the Negotiation of difficult pasts”, Brussels, 26-27 January 2012

By Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert (Cyprus University of Technology) and Alexandra Bounia (University of the Aegean)

In the 1990’s a new kind of museum appeared in the northern, mainly Muslim, part of Cyprus: Orthodox Christian churches that have been dis-used after the Turkish invasion of 1974, were turned into icon museums. In these museums, religious objects (mainly icons) have been displaced, ironically not from their natural place, which is the church, but from their original function, which is that of worship. Furthermore, the administration and ownership changed from their legal owners (the church of Cyprus and the Greek Orthodox people) to that of an occupying force of a different religion of the self-declared “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC). These museums seem to take different forms depending on the national claims of the two communities.  For the Republic of Cyprus, they are either seen as proof of the purposeful and continuous cultural destruction of Christian religious sites or as spaces which are temporarily «out of order» due to the Turkish occupation and which will resume their normal function as soon as a solution is found. On the other hand, for the TRNC, icon museums are the answer to Greek Cypriot accusations for cultural destruction and a public display of respect and religious tolerance.  As a result, these museums are in limbo between permanent, neutral institutions (as museums are supposed to be) and temporary, emotional ones. Assuming the dual role of a church and a museum, these institutions bring to the forefront issues of ownership and purpose, of religious and national representation, of restitution of cultural property and peaceful cultural co-existence.