The Sakıp Sabancı Museum

With a permanent collection of priceless paintings and calligraphy, Sabancı University’s Sakıp Sabancı Museum aims to bring world cultures together through its fine exhibitions.

It was familiar to us already from the large bronze horse in its garden. A mansion on a hill in Istanbul’s Emirgan Park, overlooking the Bosphorus and playing host to princes and princesses since the day it was built. Now its doors are open to all, as the Sabancı University Sakıp Sabancı Museum (SSM). Founded four years ago under the auspices of Sabancı University, it is a state-of-the-art modern museum with its own permanent collections, stunning exhibitions, a wide range of activities, an expertly trained staff and technical equipment to meet world standards. We timed our recent tour of this dynamic and ambitious living museum to coincide with the Picasso exhibition.


The Sabancı Mansion, which was built in the Italianate architectural style at the beginning of the 20th century, was purchased by Hacı Ömer Sabancı in 1951 as a summer home for his family. Sabancı also purchased a bronze horse, made by a Parisian sculptor, from an auction held at Mahmud Muhtar Pasha’s ‘Marble Pavilion’ in Moda on the Asian shore, and had it erected in the garden. Sabancı’s mansion would be known henceforth as the ‘Atlı Köşk’, or ‘Mansion with a Horse’. Following Hacı Ömer Sabancı’s death, his family made it their permanent residence. But the mansion, although beautiful, was difficult to maintain, and in 1999 Hacı Ömer’s son, businessman Sakıp Sabancı, who had further enriched the collections begun earlier by his father, gave up the family home and made a gift of it to Sabancı University.
The museum, which opened its doors to visitors in 2002, consists of two sections: the mansion itself and an annexed gallery outfitted with the latest in modern museum technology. The three rooms on the entrance level dazzle the eye with the opulent furnishings used while the Sabancı family resided here and their collection of art works from the 18th and 19th centuries: crystal chandeliers, enormous gilded mirrors, Sèvres vases, porcelain manufactured in Berlin and, of course, paintings... One section on this level has also been dedicated to the memory of Sakıp Sabancı himself. On the wall are photographs of him with Fidel Castro, Ronald Reagan and numerous other heads of state. Among these items are also the orders of merit, service medals, and honorary doctorate that were bestowed on Sabancı, as well as the diaries he kept and the books he wrote.


The museum’s second floor is devoted to a display of a portion of the Ottoman calligraphy in the Sabancı Collection. This rich, carefully chosen collection is important for the overview it provides of the Ottoman art of calligraphy during its 600-year history. Besides handwritten Qurans and prayer manuals, there are framed inscriptions, calligraphic collages, deeds of trust, decrees bearing the stylized signature of the sultan, and documents such as titles of privilege and royal patents, as well as calligraphic instruments on exhibit here, including, for example, a decree, dated December 1459, written in the Divanî script and bearing the signature of Mehmed the Conqueror; a Quran penned by Bayezid II’s son, Crown Prince Korkut; a verse panegyric written for Bayezid II; a calligraphic exercise in the Thuluth script by Ahmed Karahisarî, a renowned calligrapher from the period of Süleyman the Magnificent; a silver inkpot and writing set belonging to the 17th century calligraphic master, Hafız Osman; pen-cases, and many other items. The museum’s painting collection is also of outstanding importance for documenting the historical development of the art of painting in Turkey. Osman Hamdi, Şeker Ahmed Paşa, Fausto Zonaro, Ibrahim Çallı, Feyhaman Duran, Nazmi Ziya Güran and Fikret Mualla are just a few of the painters whose works you can see here.


The 4000-square-meter new gallery, which is equipped with the most advanced museum technology, is currently hosting Turkey’s first-ever large-scale exhibition of a Western artist in the form of 135 works, culled from various museums and collections and encompassing all of the painter’s periods, including drawings he made in his early youth. SSM Director, Dr. Nazan Ölçer, a world-recognized authority on Turkish museology, had this to say about the exhibition: “We have made it our purpose to bring the world’s great collections to Turkey, for the Turkish people to see. We can no longer remain inward-oriented, contented with and proud of—even though we have good reason to be proud—works that were produced in the past; we also need to know what’s going on in the world. Works from abroad will, first of all, liberate the Turkish people from their egocentric point of view and give them an opportunity to discover new horizons. Getting a chance to view, first-hand and up close, works produced by a genius like Picasso is just one example of this.” A reminder to readers: the Picasso exhibition continues through 26 March.
Dr. Ölçer points out that the museum’s education department also provides an important service: “Making a work in an exhibition comprehensible is not just a question of hanging informative panels on the wall. It can also be done through small workshop projects, lectures, films and gallery chats.” Another purpose of the museum is not merely to display the fine arts, painting and history isolated in a bell jar but to present them together with the other branches of art.
“Two concerts of Renaissance music, played on period instruments, were given, for example, in conjunction with the exhibition, ‘Ottoman Splendor in Florentine Palaces’. And at our Picasso exhibition, pieces by Eric Satie, a close friend and contemporary of the artist’s, are played as background music. Films about Picasso are also being shown. You’ll find a number of familiar names, like writer and director Jean Cocteau and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, which immediately draw you in to the atmosphere.” Ölçer explains that she hopes to put the museum’s restoration department into operation very soon as well, adding, “We are also going to open a Center for Museum Studies, which will enable us to offer lectures and other events in conjunction with the exhibitions on a regular basis.”

Since its inception in 2002 the Sakıp Sabancı Museum has brought Turkish art lovers a number of first-rate exhibitions: ‘Partnership of Power: Man and Horse’, ‘Three Centuries of European Fashion’, and ‘The Image of Turks in Europe in the 17th Century’, to name just a few. Two years ago, the exhibition, ‘From the Medicis to the Savoias: Ottoman Splendor in Florentine Palaces’, was a watershed for the museum. “The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is regarded as one of the world’s most difficult museums,” explains Ölçer. “They lend their works only with great reluctance, or not at all. Mounting an exhibition on this scale with works from them was a turning point. It was their endorsement, I believe, that gave our museum the boost it needed.”
Let us now mention briefly some of the exciting exhibitions that are going to come to the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in the months and years ahead. ‘An Ottoman Collection in Portugal’, scheduled to open in April, will bring Istanbul residents Lisbon’s famous Gulbenkian Collection, which also includes Ottoman works. This exhibition will be followed immediately by works of the great sculptor, Rodin. And at the end of the year or at the beginning of 2007, Istanbulites will be treated to the ‘Genghis Khan’ exhibition. “In a sense this is a continuation of ‘The Turks’ exhibition that we mounted in London last year. We are going to present, in extremely rich materials, the story of the small successor states that were scattered to the four corners of the earth from the empire of Genghis Khan and his lineage. But I won’t give away any more so as not to spoil the suspense!” Dr. Ölçer says too that she intends to bring the famous painters of European art to Istanbul one by one in 2007.
So, if you want to experience world cultures, just head for the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, where you’re always in for a pleasant surprise.