Cities Live In Their Memories

Sakıp Sabancı Mardin City Museum and Dilek Sabancı Art Gallery are opening on 1 October. We followed the preparations and asked Nazan Ölçer about the city museum concept.

Nazan Ölçer takes a special interest in everything... from the elevator and the floor covering to a dewdrop on the staircase and some drops of water on the mirror. “I’m a bit fussy,” she says as she wipes the drops away with a paper towel. Merely fussy? More like disciplined, authoritarian, hard-working and a perfectionist!  What she has done since taking over the directorship of the Sakıp Sabancı Museum is common knowledge. It’s all a matter of who you know, says Ölçer. “If Picasso’s granddaughter’s friend were not a friend of mine, the Picasso Exhibition would never have happened. Connections are very important in this business.” This is also a clue for those just getting into the business... Now Ölçer has turned her hand to the Sakıp Sabancı Mardin City Museum and Dilek Sabancı Art Gallery. She has set up the museum at Mardin, which she first saw in 1969 and was smitten by, as if she were arranging her daughter’s trousseau.

Is it going well? Are you satisfied with it?
I’m never satisfied... I’m always looking to do more. There are a lot of things missing, but they will be in place by the time of the opening. The team is very good; it can’t be any other way.
What sorts of things did you ask yourself when the Sabancı Foundation decided to complete the Mardin City Museum? The answers too of course...
We first looked into what we could do in order for the building to become a museum. Restoration, architectural design, and exhibition design have to go hand in hand. We started with what we had and what we could get. We invited the people of Mardin to contribute to their museum. We had to capture a common Mardin identity. We had a perfect building but no materials. Sometimes you have warehouses overflowing with hundreds of artifacts and you wonder where and how you’re going to arrange them all. Here it was just the opposite. How we were going to fill hundreds of square meters was a major question.

How did you fill them?
Since we could not go back very far, we started with the present.  We went back to the past through the culture of this moment. We made wax models of stonemasons and coppersmiths. We started from the idea that museum exhibition is a kind of staging and we worked with stage designer Metin Deniz. It was a good thing we did, too. We found old stone mortars, kitchen utensils, gold and silver building tools. We learned a lot from a documentary in which a lot of people from Mardin talk about the city’s ancient traditions. We went from door to door in Mardin trying to find what we were missing. At the moment there are more than 300 pieces in the museum and the number is increasing by the day.

Why it is important for a city to have a city museum?
People live in their memories. Cities do too. A city has to be one of a kind, not like any other, and this should permeate the city fabric. This was the point of departure for the museum. It is very important to explain a little about what went before to the people who live there. To develop awareness and a sense of belonging.

How did the City Museum concept develop in the world?
It emerged after the French Revolution. Everything started with trends like going back to folk culture, getting down to the roots of language and traditions. Museums of folk culture opened all over Europe one after the other.
And in Turkey?
Here too it started in the early years of the Republic. Groping in the dark... There was a belief that the essence of things lay in Anatolia, and turning to the cultures of Anatolia was also in line with the Republican philosophy. Unfortunately however the fieldwork that went so well was not followed up. The materials collected could not be preserved. That’s why city museum efforts started a little late in Turkey.. After everything was lost. Mardin is fortunate. For one thing there is MAREV (the Foundation for Education and Solidarity set up by Mardin people living in Istanbul), which acts in a tremendous sense of brotherhood.

What are the sine qua non’s of a city museum?
City museums have to reflect folk culture. Farming, home life, food culture, the local architecture, the cuisine... Silver, metal and stone workmanship... What’s missing is the time between the archaeology and our day. Recent history, in other words.If you go back a hundred years, that’s getting into the area of art history in a sense. The missing link is recent history, and that’s precisely what’s most easily lost. A city museum has to capture the memory of recent history.

How should a museum not be set up?
The sine qua non in this business is a collection. The collection constitutes the museum prerequisite. First you have to have materials, and then you can start looking for a suitable space. In Turkey the process works in reverse. First the building is built, and then an attempt is made to fill it. It shouldn’t be that way. It absolutely should not be.

Most of the time existing buildings are used...
Not even that. The kind of things that are done... if you only knew. What you have is a society with neither an existing collection nor a demand for a museum. All you have is the prestige associated with being the owner of a museum. With that prestige in mind, huge sums of money are paid to recognized architects of the Near East Countries especially. The buildings stand completely empty. And then they try to fill them up.

What is the riskiest aspect of it all?
The riskiest aspect is to view it as a business. These can be risky enterprises for countries that have money but no demand for a museum and none of the materials a museum requires. Very lovely buildings may emerge, but they remain empty inside. If there is no demand, interest or materials, then the contents are missing. There has to be a community that demands it. Otherwise you’ll create a museum and end up looking at the artifacts all by yourself.

So, what if a city has a cultural past to fill a museum but the materials are missing, as in Mardin...
Mardin has the cultural past to fill a museum. Indeed it has a superfluity, not a deficiency. That is exactly why we are here.

“The Sabancı Foundation has spent a total of 7 million Turkish liras up to now building, restoring and furnishing the Sakıp Sabancı Mardin City Museum and Dilek Sabancı Art Gallery. What is important is outfitting the museum with the appropriate objects and information. The Governor’s Office of Mardin, MAREV (the Mardin Foundation of Istanbul) and the Mardin residents themselves have taken a great interest in the museum and made contributions, and this is very encouraging for the future.”

We would like to reclaim Mardin’s identity. The goal is to get on UNESCO’s list of historic cities and become European Capital of Culture in 2023... The City Museum has a special importance for us. We have replaced all the existing infrastructure. One by one we are demolishing the concrete buildings in the Old City - trimming away the excess a la Rodin - and the city’s beauty is emerging.