Pioneer Of Private Museology In Turkey


Collecting is a tradition in the Koç family. Named for the wife of the late Turkish industrialist, Vehbi Koç, the Sadberk Hanım Museum, which opened in 1980, was one of the country’s first private museums. With his love of the sea and refined tastes and style of dress, Rahmi M. Koç has a style of his own.

And the Rahmi M. Koç Museum of Industry, which consists of objects painstakingly assembled by Rahmi Bey himself, is the most comprehensive of its kind in Turkey. Sharing his collections with the public by exhibiting them in museums, Rahmi Bey has made a significant contribution to the country’s culture. We spoke with him about collecting and the cultural dynamics that underlie it.

What is the philosophy of collecting?
In essence, collecting is a passion and at the same time a discipline. It demands sacrifice and persistence. It is a labor of patience. Things of all sorts can be collected. Not only is collecting a pleasant pastime, it also develops a person and adds a lot to his life. Over time a strong bond develops between the collector and his collection. At the same time collecting is also a matter of budgeting. There is no rule that says a person with a lot of money will have a great collection.

How did you get started? Did your family circle have an influence on you?
My interest in collecting started when I was very small. During the summer holidays when all the other kids were swimming in the Bosphorus, my mother would take me with her to the Grand Bazaar so she could keep an eye on me.

During that period I couldn’t help but overhear how the sales of antiques and collections were negotiated. The spark that was lit in me then later turned into a flame. In time I was collecting antiques of all kinds. When I became more conscious of what I was doing, I got interested in archaeological artifacts. And I began to collect them for the museum as a licensed collector.

How did the idea for a museum of industry come about?
First I thought of collecting the products  manufactured by the Koç Group in a museum, but friends I consulted warned me that such a museum would not attract interest, so I broadened the base. When I was setting up the Rahmi M. Koç Museum we wanted it to have things that would interest everybody from seven to seventy.

How did you get interested in cars?
I got a lot more interested in cars when I went to the U.S., to Johns Hopkins University. I was awed by Henry Ford, who was nothing less than a genius. Later when I made a business trip to Detroit in 1956, I toured the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn and was extremely impressed. It was there, with those feelings, that I said to myself:

God willing, I too will found a museum like this in Turkey one day. In time, houses, offices, warehouses, literally every place I had filled up with collections of all sorts. In the end I decided to found a museum and share my collections with the public. That in short is the story of the birth of our museum.

What sort of enjoyment do you derive from archaeology?
Archaeology is of course not merely a journey to the past. It is at the same time the transmission of the past to the present: understanding, knowing and becoming familiar with the past.

I believe in preserving the cultural heritage and passing it down to future generations. History should not simply be abandoned to oblivion. Apart from raising the general cultural level of a person who is interested in the past, archaeology also ensures that he has a vision and that all production based on that vision will be more fruitful.

What would you say about Turkey in comparison with Europe and the U.S. when it comes to businessmen and private firms that collect?
I believe it is more correct to broaden that from businessmen who collect to collectors in general. Every country has its own cultural treasures, its riches that are beginning to be lost. Until 20 years ago, the only museums in Turkey were state institutions.

Now private museums have begun to appear on the cultural scene. A collection that is put together intelligently grows and appreciates in value over time in proportion with the collector’s means. What is important is that collections be shared with others. Collectors have their own clubs and societies, but this type of sharing never reaches the public. Consequently the ideal form of sharing is to address a broad public by creating a museum.

When we look abroad at the developed countries, we see that such initiatives get a lot of encouragement and appreciation. This induces collectors to become more organized and more willing to share. Since private museology is still quite new and not sufficiently widespread in Turkey, such ideas have not yet gained currency here.

Is collecting adequately supported in Turkey?
Collecting is not sufficiently encouraged in Turkey. I have no doubt that what has to be done is to whet the appetites of interested parties by bringing Law no. 2863 governing the Preservation of Cultural and Natural Assets in line with its counterpart in Europe during the process of EU harmonization.  Changes like this would mean that artifacts could be bought and sold easily inside the country. Taking ancient artifacts outside the country should always be subject to the permission of the museum.

Whose job is it to see that collecting develops in Turkey?
As you can imagine, it is possible to collect in a number of areas. Under regulations in Turkey, the collecting of archaeological artifacts is done by a museum with a registered inventory under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture. Naturally no inventory or supervision of any kind is required in other areas of collecting.

As I mentioned earlier, some of the legislation governing archaeological artifacts is so strict that it makes collecting difficult and occasionally even deters a person from collecting or makes him regret becoming a collector. Since the number of licensed collectors does not grow sufficiently under such conditions often artifacts remain unregistered, and occasionally they are smuggled outside the country illegally.

It is important to harmonize with EU laws in order to prevent this from happening. Another inducement to collecting would be to introduce a tax writeoff on the value, as assessed by an expert, of artifacts that are donated to a museum, as is done in other countries. This would certainly encourage the collection of larger and more valuable items.

How did you discover the historic Lengerhane (harbor) and dockyard buildings in the district of Hasköy on the Golden Horn?
When the idea of founding a museum finally gelled in my mind, I started looking for an appropriate location in Istanbul to realize it. The first location I wanted was the Historic Peninsula. We looked for historic buildings and venues along the coast at Topkapı Palace and Sultanahmet. But we were unable to find any suitable places that also had a quay.

Then Dr. Bülent Bulgurlu, a member of the museum’s board of directors, said he had found a place at Hasköy on the Golden Horn. He took me there and showed me the historic ‘lengerhane’ building, whose foundations go back to the 12th century. Last used as a grain alcohol warehouse by the State Monopoly, it had suffered fire damage and been abandoned. Its dome had collapsed and it was in a parlous state.

As for the surrounding area, it was a far cry from any modern concept of urban planning. We believed that, like other districts, it would improve rapidly. So we bought it through Turkey’s privatization program and restored it to its original state at serious cost and great effort. We opened our museum in 1994.

After it opened the museum continued to expand. Can you sum up that process as well?
Within a short time our warehouses were full to overflowing and we lacked sufficient exhibition space. We were already starting to outgrow the building. This time, upon the recommendation and thanks to the efforts of Dr. Bülent Bulgurlu, we bought the historic Hasköy Tersane (Dockyard), which was directly across the street from us and also abandoned, thereby acquiring a facility boasting a large garden, buildings and a quay. Again following great expense and effort, we opened the new section of our museum to the public at the end of 2001.

Today I am enjoying the good fortune of having founded a museum whose collection of upwards of ten thousand items spread over an area of 28,000 square meters is a pleasure to visit. In the intervening period however our collection has grown even more, so we are again looking for a place to expand.