The Potency of Mute Objects

Thinking of identity and imagination inspired by Sadberk Hanım Musem

Published in print Art Dog Issue 6, December 2020

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Sadberk Hanım Museum holds an extensive collection of around 20,000 items. Housing outstanding examples and artifacts from Anatolian civilizations, Ottoman arts, as well as Greek and Roman civilizations dating from prehistory to the 20th century, the museum is preparing to move to a new and more central building designed by Grimshaw Architects towards an objective of increased public integration.

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The air is crisp along the Bosphorus, ideal for a visit to Sadberk Hanım Museum’s peculiar Anatolian figurines collection, but will its environment be as fresh after the heritage institution’s move to the Golden Horn inlet? The objects in its collections have the potential to serve, support, and stimulate our imagination – perhaps even to reconstruct the popular imagination/memory to understand the feminine evolution of societies. 

The studies of archeologist and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas are a call to pay more attention to the “imagination”, by following her unprecedented readings of Neolithic artefacts. Throughout her remarkable career, Gimbutas (born 1921), studied the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of Old Europe through extensive field research from Sardinia to Ukraine to Çatalhöyük/Turkey. She emphasized the life-giving, death-giving and transformational aspects of the goddess as unitary in contrast to the conventional and limited understandings of their being simply fertility or Mother figures. 

Sadberk Hanım Museum holds few carefully preserved, sitting woman figurines, accepted as among the first examples of the mother goddess dating back to the 6th millennium BC. These figurines are part of the wider selection of objects at the museum’s collection, which the museum noted via e-mail as, “qualified to represent all of the Anatolian civilizations throughout all cultural periods as early as prehistory to the 20th century.”

The museum collection is founded on the private collection of Sadberk Koç, initially holding 3,000 pieces at the time of its foundation in 1980, which now has grown into an astounding 20,000. Ever-expanding with acquisitions and donations, the donation of the Hüseyin Kocabaş Collection has been a turning point for the institution’s archeology collection. The museum also holds a comprehensive Turkish-Islam Collection, developing with the objective of presenting the main veins of the Islamic arts. Two departments include a wide spectrum of artifacts like traditional costumes, embroidery, silver artifacts, porcelains, cups and vessels not only from Anatolian and Ottoman but also Roman and Greek civilizations.

In his writing, archaeologist and historian Neil Asher Silberman discussed the politics of archeology, mentions archeology “as a tool for historical self identification” . Considering the recent critiques of the discipline of archaeology within the axis of colonial discourse, its historic capacity of re-constructing histories, its role in the establishing of imperial/nationalist narratives, I can not think of private institutions such as the Sadberk Hanım Collection as apart from the identity struggles brought about by modernity. 

A place of creative research

Sadberk Hanım Museum is within the circuit of professional visitation by artists and scholars who also survey the collections at the Istanbul Archeology Museum -founded by the museologist and painter Osman Hamdi Bey- and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, both located around Sultanahmet Square. These museums are around a hundred years old, and historically had close ties with the state and have gone through several ruptures, remaining idle for some periods due to many aspects, political turmoil foremost. Seeing all these institutions and getting a glimpse of their collections, it was interesting to notice nuances between their collections and the Sadberk Hanım Museum. 

As extensively analyzed in art historian Wendy Shaw’s book Possessors and Possessed: Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire, the collections of these state institutions, originating from the same base of collection, are informed by political, cultural and ideological guideposts-as is the case for most if not all museums of the period. This may be considered valuable in highlighting the museum institution’s political and historiographical agency. 

Whereas, admiring the distinctively exquisite objects in the Sadberk Hanım Museum one can easily relate the museum and its collection endeavours to a very personal passion, desire, even fear. Sevgi Gönül daughter of Sadberk Hanım, mentions their mother-daughter delight in walking around antique shops and flea markets in search of old interesting items in her column at Hürriyet Newspaper titled, Sevgi’nin Diviti: “Catching hold of an object that nobody else has noticed, albeit hard, gave me and my mother great delight.” Her husband, Vehbi Koç, in his memoirs, notes Sadberk Hanım’s wish to not be forgotten was influential in her will to open her collection to the public with a museum. Her wishes were fulfilled after her passing by her family and especially by her daughter Sevgi Gönül, who was very active in the foundation, and later operations of the museum, and donated her own collection of Islamic calligraphy in 2003.

Private collections not only enable an understanding of the social and political but also give hints about the subjectivity and identity of its creator. Sadberk Hanım was passionate about historic Ottoman women’s costumes, so much so that she herself maintained the preservation of fabrics and embroideries which have reached our day in very good condition. With approximately 1300 pieces of items dating between the 18th and 20th century, the items encompassed different geographies under Ottoman rule at the time. It is in fact quite delightful to catch hints and make up imaginary cases in your head about the question: What would a woman, with all the baggages of her time, give importance to? What things are of great importance to her? why? What kind of conversations, thoughts was she having while wearing this gown? As I say, museums are great to the extent that they ignite and open space for imagination. 

Alongside with clothing and other textiles the Sadberk Hanım Collection holds valuable examples of the Ottoman arts, between the 15th to the 20th century, including ceramics, glass, metal, silver works, porcelain artifacts. This Turkish-Islamic collection also has a prominent selection showcasing the development of İznik tiles and ceramics as well as calligraphy and illumination artifacts, holding works by the well-known calligraphers of their times such as Şeyh Hamdullah, Derviş Ali, Hafız Osman.

The colonialism of early museology 

By the 1800’s in Europe, archeology began to be an amateur interest for collecting curiosities and recording ancient sites or findings, later evolving into a discipline fully equipped with the methods of scientific research. Many amateurs, scholars, smugglers swept across unknown lands, over the outlaw territories of ancient sites, taking back the knowledge, image or the object itself back home. Lands that were then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire suffered much from this new European endeavour. 

In her aforementioned book Wendy M.K. Shaw narrates a comprehensive history of  archeology museums in İstanbul and its collection, noting the effect of the imperial archeological enterprise on Ottoman museology. For Shaw, the museum is a site of resistance in the Ottoman context, for protecting archeological objects meant protecting borders. 

Archeologic pursuits in the Ottoman lands, present day Greece, Iran, Iraq, Anatolia and many more indicated an absence of authority, while leading to the dislocation of many objects to European museums, perhaps the most distinct example being the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, a public institution based on the some legally and some illegally acquired remains of the Zeus Altar originally located in Bergama of İzmir Province in the southwest of Turkey. The Ottoman Antiquities Law, updated and extended several times, along with updates in applications, is important in illustrating the significance placed on controlling the mobility of objects as a form of exerting power. 

Apart from being a vein of resistance against Western imperial expansionist policies, the Ottoman pursuit of preserving and collecting its archeologic heritage continued in a more abstract way, utilizing the history-constructing capacity of archeology to define a cultural identity, albeit quite dispersed, as both a resistance and involvement in the narrative of Western civilization constructed with the help of the archeology discipline, later re-utilized as a strategy by nation-states.

Toward a future recollection 

In times when Isis and various terrorist groups have demolished ancient sites and smuggled their remains to unknown private collectors and tax-free havens; borders are being tightened in fear of refugees; artists, activists and intellectuals increasingly questions museums’ colonial backgrounds and rethink the fragmentation of our very fragile identities, what are the implications for private collections and public institution? 

As issued by the museum, the document replying to my questions regarding the collection often emphasized the collection’s ability to enable “following through with the history” of Anatolian civilizations and the Islamic Arts. The museum’s extensive library, including 10,000 books in print and 670 manuscripts offers valuable material for scholarly research. With its library as well as a myriad collection of items Sadberk Hanım Museum seems to be doing its best to enrich, deepen, and diversify the ground of discussions around history, culture and identity.

It seems museum management is considering the accessibility of the museum too. The museum plans to move from its current location in Sarıyer on the Bosphorus coast to one of the old shipyards in Haliç, a much more central location. Lale Görünür, a representative for the museum, summarizes the reasons behind this decision as: to integrate with all levels of society, and become a center of attraction for all…” In addition she notes that there are practical reasons, such as suitable displays and storage facilities that the existing building does not satisfy. For the architectural project of the building and exhibition design, Grimshaw Architects and Atelier Brückner have been commissioned respectively. It will be interesting to observe the influences of these new, shiny museum buildings, like the upcoming museum’s quarter in Galataport along the Karaköy coastline, which have been designed in line with contemporary museology practices.

As narrated in Chris Marker’s short film with Alain Resnais, Statues Also Die: “…the God who wove this flesh taught them by its turn to weave the cloth and its gesture sends back every second to the weaving of the world…” In the present day where the weaving-of-history is based on fear and othering, the agency to discuss and communicate self-identities seem to be a non-negotiable necessity. Objects, although being central to a problematic means for narrative making and knowledge production, are mute and always holds the possibility to ignite imagination, a tool with which we are continuously weaving our future with.