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Managing a treasure trove
For the curator of Nicosia’s Leventis Museum, there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had trawling through the past. THEO PANAYIDES meets her
It does sound,” I point out to Loukia Loizou Hadjigavriel, “like your life in general has been – straightforward, shall we say?”
“I was very lucky, I have to admit,” she replies – which is true, at least professionally. Her private life, in particular her married life, has had more than its share of “dark times” (more on this later), but her career has been… well, straightforward.
She turned 53 a few weeks ago, but has been in the same job since she was 24. That’s when she came back from France – French is still her second language; her English is fluent but limited – having studied Archaeology and History of Art at Montpellier, followed by a Masters and PhD. Coming back to Cyprus, she saw a job being advertised in the newspaper: Curator and Director of the newly-established Leventis Municipal Museum of Nicosia. She applied, and the job was hers.
It seems odd that so young and inexperienced a person could’ve won such a top job so easily – but she obviously impressed then-Mayor Lellos Demetriades and his council in the written exam (five essay questions, inviting her to set out her vision for the new institution) and subsequent job interview. At 24, she was faced with the task of building a top museum from scratch.
The Leventis is indeed a top museum; it won European Museum of the Year in 1991, and has only grown in the years since (it actually closed down for two years in 2008-2010 so it could renovate and move into bigger premises). In the beginning there was literally nothing; the museum was established in 1984 but only opened its doors in 1989, Loukia’s job for five years being to find donors and beg or borrow objects from other collections (she also spent some time in the US doing a course in Museum Management). Yet its future was never in serious doubt, and Loukia claims to have got on well with all the various mayors and money-men (the funding comes from the Municipality of Nicosia and the Leventis Foundation). They “gave me every possibility to develop my own ideas without imposing their opinion – or else they just liked my proposals,” she smiles. Again, straightforward.
It’s worth digressing slightly to talk about the museum – a surprise, to me at least, because I’d always thought it was filled primarily with ancient artefacts (“In our mind, museums are archaeology,” sighs Loukia with a well-practised weariness), whereas it’s actually much more eclectic, and more entertaining.
Its focus is Nicosia, but it approaches that subject from a wide variety of angles. Strewn about the waiting-room to Loukia’s office are brochures for an exhibition called ‘100 + 2 Objects’, showcasing a cross-section of the museum’s holdings – and the range is impressive, a magpie’s nest of seemingly random bric-a-brac. Here, of course, is an ancient bowl, “representative of the pottery of ancient Nicosia during the Late Bronze Age” (15th century BC, or thereabouts) – but here also is a chunk of the Berlin Wall, a present from the Municipality of Berlin in 1990 “with the wish that one day Nicosia will also be reunited”.
It’s a treasure trove, like rummaging through someone’s attic. Here’s a mid-19th century silver bracelet, “decorated with filigree technique”. Here’s an engagement gown “worn by the late Agni Michaelides on her engagement party in 1938”, donated by Mrs Michaelides herself (or her estate). Here’s a children’s golden ring from the 7th century, the Byzantine Period, decorated with the inscription “EPAGATHO” (which apparently translates as ‘Pro bono’) – but here also is a curfew pass, allowing its holder to break curfew during the EOKA struggle for independence in the 1950s. Here’s some Lefkara embroidery; here’s a golden ducat belonging to Girolamo Priuli, the 83rd Doge of Venice who ordered the construction of the Walls of Nicosia; here’s a 6th-century dress buckle, here’s an 18th-century Ottoman sword, here’s a pocket watch “belonging to the Railway Stationmaster of Nicosia”, back when Nicosia had a railway. Here’s a book called Sunshine and Storm in the East by Lady Annie Brassey (whoever she was), “with narration on the visit of Her Ladyship to Nicosia and her stay at Garnet Woolsley’s camp in 1878”. Here’s the cigarette case of Archbishop Makarios, found in the burned-out ruins of the Presidential Palace after the 1974 coup. Here are 18th-century silver zarfs (coffee cups) decorated with semi-precious stones – but here too are the first chip-enhanced Telecards, circulated by CyTA in 1998.
Overlooking all this treasure, once you take a glass elevator to the third floor, is Loukia’s office, tucked away down a corridor past a small warren-like space broken up into cubicles. The vibe is messy and informal; her staff refer to her as “Mrs. Loukia”. She herself is bulky and unhurried, with green eyes and a slightly turned-down mouth, lending a worried cast to her expression. Unusually for such a successful person – especially in the sphere of the arts – she initially comes off slow-moving, the head lolling as she sits, the eyes regarding me lazily. In the context of Isaiah Berlin’s famous division of people into foxes and hedgehogs (foxes being interested in many things while hedgehogs concentrate on one big thing), she comes across as a hedgehog, steady and systematic; which is why it’s odd that the museum she runs is so fox-like.
In fact, the slowness is deceptive. Loukia is a high achiever, the Leventis being only a part (albeit a big part) of her professional life. She’s president of the National Committee of UNESCO in Cyprus, necessitating frequent trips to Paris and the overseeing of our World Heritage sites (we have three: Chirokitia, Paphos and the “Painted Churches” of the Troodos Mountains); she’s a consultant for other municipal museums abroad (most recently Bologna); and she’s also heavily involved with the AG Leventis Gallery, due to open in 2013.
Unsurprisingly she doesn’t get much sleep, though that seems to be partly by choice. Her working hours are unusual: she’s in the office by 7am (she gets up around 6.15), goes home around 3, takes a break in the afternoon then works at night, often starting around 9pm and working till 1 or 2 in the morning. Social life doesn’t really come into it; she has friends, of course, but “I’m not a person who desperately wants to go out. I like my house”. The house is full of books – there are two big corridors, a study and a library all piled high with books – mostly Art books, exhibition catalogues and volumes relating to research that she does while preparing exhibitions. “In my mind, I’ve got ideas for exhibitions for the next 10 years,” she says brightly.
Books, exhibitions, a life of quiet productivity. A husband, two children (a daughter, 17, and a son, 14). A love of travel, her favourite places being Switzerland and Austria (nice, quiet, civilised places). It all sounds very straightforward; in fact, one could almost say that Loukia has spent a lifetime studying the turmoil of Cyprus history without ever living it. Even the Turkish invasion – a defining historical event for her generation – was experienced at one remove: not only was she in Rhodes with the Girl Scouts but her parents and brother happened to be there as well (they were all supposed to go on to Greece together), so she didn’t even have to worry about their safety. In a way it made it harder, of course, hearing about Cyprus on the radio and trying to piece things together (listening to CyBC talk about Turkish planes getting shot down, “I thought we were winning!”) – but it’s one thing to cower beneath exploding shells, quite another to hear about it from hundreds of miles away.
Loukia Loizou Hadjigavriel gives off such a comfortable vibe – the cosy office, the good job, the seemingly charmed life, the house full of books – that it’s quite a shock when she talks about the “dark times” in her past. Soon after she got married, at a time when the museum too was struggling to become established, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. For many months, it was touch-and-go. “He had a lot of chemotherapy,” she recalls. “He had a bone-marrow transplant, he had heart operations. I mean, it was – half of the time it was museum, and half of the time it was hospitals!”.
She can laugh now but it must’ve been a nightmare, especially for a woman in the prime of life (it’s somehow more upsetting when such things happen to young people). “But now we are OK. And I have adopted my two children,” she adds without being prompted, “and I’m very lucky to have them.”
That was when her job came in handy, both in offering perspective (a reminder that our time on Earth is so short, next to the messy sprawl of History) and necessary distraction. They spent six months in London, for her husband’s bone-marrow transplant – but Loukia went to the British Library whenever he was asleep, and ended up writing a publication on the history of the Walls of Nicosia.
Things are easier now, her life back on its even keel – but one battle goes on. “Cypriots are not used to visiting museums or looking back on their history,” she admits ruefully. “People are afraid of museums”. She tries hard to overcome resistance at the Leventis, with virtual-reality aids and imaginative installations – one, built to mark the 50th anniversary of Cyprus independence, showed the changing prices of souvlaki, coffee, milk, bread and halloumi across each of the Republic’s five decades – but most people wouldn’t even think of taking kids to a museum (as opposed to a mall), such things being “for the tourists”.
It must be hard living in Cyprus sometimes, I suggest. She’s been a museum curator all her life, but a place like the Leventis could really thrive (or thrive even more) in a bigger city with a more receptive population. She’s had offers, admits Loukia, but hasn’t been tempted to go abroad (at least not yet). And besides, the job has compensations – like the chance to curate ‘Mapping Cyprus’, a grand exhibition specially commissioned by the Bozar in Brussels to coincide with the Cyprus EU Presidency.
That’s been her baby for the past six months, and I sense her pride as she shows me the catalogue – a heavy doorstop of a book, its pages filled with yet another treasure trove. One room of the exhibition is devoted to icons looted from the occupied north and later ‘rescued’ (i.e. bought at auction) by the Church – but you also get, for instance, a “scrapbook” of photos taken by Miss Gwendoline Frere, a British officer’s daughter, in 1882. Above all it’s a European exhibition, with a number of Cyprus-related artworks contributed by museums abroad.
One thing is clear, says Loukia, the turned-down mouth reversing into a smile: ‘Mapping Cyprus’ shows we still have things to find, treasures to amass. Many of the objects on show weren’t even thought of as being connected to Cyprus till recently. Take a look at this, she says, turning to a painting in the catalogue. It’s a Tintoretto from the 16th century, titled ‘Portrait of a Woman in an Oriental Dress’ – but only now, five centuries later, has the woman in the painting been identified as Catherine Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus! The moral of the story? Loukia’s art – like her life – isn’t always straightforward.