Museums react with alarm as Turkey demands its art

Dan Bilefsky / New York Times News Service /

ISTANBUL — An aggressive campaign by Turkey to reclaim antiquities it says were looted has led in recent months to the return of an ancient sphinx and many golden treasures from the region’s past. But it has also drawn condemnation from some of the world’s largest museums, which call the campaign cultural blackmail.

In their latest salvo, Turkish officials this summer filed a criminal complaint in the Turkish court system seeking an investigation into what they say was the illegal excavation of 18 objects that are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Norbert Schimmel collection.

Turkey’s efforts have spurred an international debate about who owns antiquities after centuries of shifting borders. Museums like the Met, the Getty, the Louvre and the Pergamon in Berlin say their mission to display global art treasures is under siege from Turkey’s tactics.

Museum directors say the repatriation drive seeks to alter accepted practices, like a widely embraced UNESCO convention that lets museums acquire objects that were outside their countries of origin before 1970. Although Turkey ratified the convention in 1981, it is now citing a 1906 Ottoman-era law — one that banned the export of artifacts — to claim any object removed after that date as its own.

“The Turks are engaging in polemics and nasty politics,” said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Pergamon. Turkey’s campaign has enjoyed notable success, however. Last year the Pergamon agreed to return a 3,000-year-old sphinx from the Hittite Empire that Turkey said had been taken to Germany for restoration in 1917. German officials said Turkey had threatened to block major archaeological projects if the sphinx did not come home.

The director of the Met, Thomas P. Campbell, said in an interview that the museum believed the objects sought by Turkey had been legally acquired by Norbert Schimmel in the European antiquities market in the 1960s before being donated to the museum in 1989, and thus were in compliance with the UNESCO accord.

Campbell said the argument that objects should always be returned to their countries of origin was dubious, given that artifacts travel throughout the centuries.

“We are in the business of celebrating Turkish culture,” he said, “and it is the great displays in London, Paris and New York, more than anything else, that will encourage people to go to Turkey and explore their cultural heritage, and not just the sun and beach.”

and a broader challenge for the nation’s economy.

There are likely to be 150,000 computing jobs opening up each year through 2020, according to an analysis of federal forecasts by the Association for Computing Machinery, a professional society for computing researchers. But despite the hoopla around startup celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, fewer than 14,000 U.S. students received undergraduate degrees in computer science last year, the Computing Research Association estimates. And the wider job market remains weak.

“People can’t get jobs, and we have jobs that can’t be filled,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel who oversees its philanthropic efforts, said in a recent interview.

Big technology companies have complained for years about a dearth of technical talent, a problem they have tried to solve by lobbying for looser immigration rules to accommodate more foreign engineers and sponsoring tech competitions to encourage student interest in the industry.

Google, for one, holds a programming summer camp for incoming ninth-graders and underwrites an effort called CS4HS, in which high school teachers sharpen their computer science skills in workshops at local universities.

But Microsoft is sending its employees to the front lines, encouraging them to commit to teaching a high school computer science class for a full school year. Its engineers, who earn a small stipend for their classroom time, are in at least two hourlong classes a week and sometimes as many as five. Schools arrange the classes for first thing in the day to avoid interfering with the schedules of the engineers, who often do not arrive at Microsoft until the late morning.

The program started as a grass-roots effort by Kevin Wang, a Microsoft engineer with a master’s degree in education from Harvard. In 2009, he began volunteering as a computer science teacher at a Seattle public high school on his way to work. After executives at Microsoft caught wind of what he was doing, they put financial support behind the effort — which is known as Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, or TEALS — and let Wang run it full time.

The program is now in 22 schools in the Seattle area and has expanded to more than a dozen other schools in Washington, Utah, North Dakota, California and other states this academic year. Microsoft wants other big technology companies to back the effort so it can broaden the number of outside engineers involved.

While computer science can be an intimidating subject, Microsoft has sought to connect it to the technologies most students use in their everyday lives. At Rainier Beach High recently, Peli de Halleux, a Microsoft software engineer, taught a class on making software for mobile phones.

The students buried their faces in the phones, supplied by Microsoft. They were asked to create programs that performed simple functions, like playing a random song when the phones were shaken.

Leandre, who took de Halleux’s mobile programming class last year and is in Edouard’s Advanced Placement computer science class this year, proudly showed off a simple game he had created, Sun Collector, in which players tilt the phone to dodge black balls and hit big yellow ones.

“I never really understood what was behind these games,” he said. “Once you start getting it, it’s pretty easy to understand.”

Finding capable computer science teachers is also hard. Few other industries are as good as the technology business in its ability to divert would-be educators into far more lucrative corporate jobs. Edouard graduated from the University of Florida in 2011 and considered enlisting in Teach for America, but he also had multiple offers from technology employers.

“In today’s day and age, with so many college loans, it’s tough to go into teaching,” he said.

One of the biggest concerns about Microsoft’s effort is that most of its volunteers have little teaching experience. To comply with district licensing requirements and to help engineers with classroom challenges like managing unruly teenagers, a professional teacher is also in the room during lessons.

One of the program’s tenets is that Microsoft engineers need to teach the teachers, alongside students, so that those instructors can eventually run an engaging computer science class on their own.

“We are taking the kids further than I could do,” said Michael Braun, a teacher at Rainier Beach High who is working with Microsoft volunteers.

There are still hiccups, including tensions between some of the professional teachers and the Microsoft engineers assigned to work with them, according to several people involved in the program, who did not want to be named for fear of seeming critical of Microsoft.

Wang, the program’s founder, said a professional from the tech industry who stands at the head of a class for a full year can be a powerful role model.

“Kids can see themselves in their shoes,” Wang said. After all, he added, “their chances of going to college and majoring in computer science are exponentially better than getting into the NFL.”

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