In the flesh
The first step to building a physical exhibition was to find a venue. As we were led to the idea of trying a library, we discovered that not only did Bethnal Green library have a spare disused room, it was also only a stone’s throw away from Maslaha HQ.
We were inspired by the thought that Samuel Pepys had stored his diaries there around the same time that Evliya was also writing his journals. As we took up residency in the library, which incidentally also used to be part of a mental asylum, we prepared ourselves for an ongoing relationship with mops, paintbrushes, staple guns and screw drivers.
Emma waved her magic wand, and construction began. First, the cleaning – the lecture hall had not been used for a while and had to be prepared to become the home of our Ottoman journey. The scaffolders arrived from Kent and carefully erected the skeleton. We were accompanied by a happy tribe of volunteers from the Young Foundation as we seized paintbrushes. Emma, Emily and Ginny adopted a new life at height as they taught themselves how to hang draping from the scaffolding. The carpenters built the display units, Adam arrived with the sculptures – two windows from 17th century Cairo and Istanbul. Finally, Emma added her finishing touches – the lighting, the candles and lamps, polishing, not one corner of draping out of place. The boards were brought to their new home, and Suki’s film was set up to project onto the back wall whilst Peter’s music echoed through the hall. The Book of Travels was brought to life.
The Preview was an enormous success, bringing together Team Evliya with friends, colleagues and many visitors who were drawn to Bethnal Green to find out more. Ben was particularly impressed by the Turkish-style food, provided by our catering friends who spent the rest of their time at the award-winning Moro restaurant. Newly elected MP for Bow and Bethnal Green and Young Foundation colleague Rushanara Ali introduced the exhibition, and Raheel, Martin and Caroline said a few words. At the end of the night, the team collapsed into a heap of happy relief, but not for long.
The Book of Travels was open for two days and two days only to the general public. The footsteps of a myriad of visitors from all walks of life stepped through the hall, imaginations were swept away, thoughts danced with the candles hanging from the scaffolding. The groups of local students were led through the mosques and bazaars of Istanbul, the coffeehouses of London, St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, and Cairo’s Hospital of Qalam, and challenged with thoughts of their own cities and travels.
And then it all disappeared. Within just a few hours, the whole exhibition was taken down and the hall returned to its former empty state. The old lecture hall had been revitalized, and Bethnal Green library had already received a number of bookings for the coming months. But its Ottoman transformation was no more.
Or was it?
No! This exhibition was built to last forever, and every nook and cranny was photographed from every angle, ready to be turned into its virtual manifestation. Evliya would be back very soon…