An important late 19th century natural science collection — and the scholar behind it — are brought back into focus in Istanbul


More than a century ago, botanist John Manissadjian roamed the countryside of what is now northern Turkey, collecting — and sometimes identifying for the first time — thousands of species of flowers and other plants, as well as butterflies and moths. These finds formed the core of the natural science museum he established at Anatolia College, a school for Greek and Armenian students in the Ottoman Empire.

“Manissadjian’s labour of love was such a sophisticated collection, started in the last decade of the 19th century,” says Vasif Kortun, director of research and programmes at Istanbul-based cultural institution SALT.

Sadly, within just a few decades, the museum and its collection were doomed to disappear, dispersed, along with Anatolia College’s students and professors, following the mass expulsion of Armenians from Ottoman lands in 1915.

Now, curator Marianna Hovhannisyan is working with SALT to bring some of Manissadjian’s scholarship back into focus in a new exhibition, Empty Fields, running from April 6 to June 5. The show’s title reflects its themes of “displacement, loss and abstraction,” according to Hovhannisyan, who emphasises the “importance of accepting gaps and interruptions as part of history.”

An Armenian born in today’s Turkey, Manissadjian studied in Berlin and brought that international network back with him when he started working at Anatolia College in the town of Merzifon. “He was exchanging flowers with different institutions, in Germany, Paris, London,” says Hovhannisyan. “His scholarship was really important, not just because of the museum but because he was a key scientist on butterflies and plants, identifying and describing them in this geographic space on the periphery of what was going on in Istanbul.”

Manissadjian’s scholarship included a detailed classification catalogue of the museum’s specimens, which Hovhannisyan uncovered while digging through the archives of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which established Anatolia College.

After the missionary group ended its work in Turkey, the multilingual archives were transferred to the American Research Institute in Turkey, which has partnered with SALT to catalogue and digitise them for public use.

“The archive is massive and will take a number of years to process,” says Kortun. “It will be available online in its entirety, free and open to researchers.”

Empty Fields will bring Manissadjian’s work to life with timelines, maps, photographs, letters and video interviews, as well as archival materials documenting the professor’s educational work with his students, which Hovhannisyan finds particularly poignant. “He was training the next generations to do all this archiving, cataloguing and naming,” she says. “But then these scholars themselves became forgotten and unknown.”

by Jennifer Hattam

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One – on – One Issue #35, on page 28.