Kayhan: Museums should become centers of attraction

Kayhan: Museums should become centers of attraction

Nazlan Ertan - İZMİR
Kayhan: Museums should become centers of attraction

Muharrem Kayhan (L) and Lucien Arkas at İzmir's Arkas Art Center where Kayhan's internationally-renowned collection of coins and historical objects are on display.

Muharrem Kayhan’s interests in the heritage of Caria and Ionia started in mid-1980s, and his 30-year journey led him to one of the most significant collections of the period. The former chairman of Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD) has also been involved in restoration of an Ottoman mosque, Isabey, in his hometown of Aydın.  

How did the exhibition “Testimonies of Anatolian Antiquity” come about?

Lucien [Arkas of Arkas Holding] knew that I was a collector of coins. A team from the Arkas Art Center came to see the collection and when they saw the whole picture, they wanted to display both the coins and the other objects. We worked a year on this, to select what would be on display and how to do it.

What started you on your long journey as a collector?

I was always fond of reading of history from early on, but I think the main trigger was the fact that every day, going from home to work, I passed through antique Ionia. It would have been strange if I had remained oblivious to the heritage around it. So I started looking for the traces, for the documents that would give me more knowledge of the heritage of these lands.

And you focused on coins?

When I first started my collection in the 1980s, the first items were not coins. But I was drawn to ancient Greek coinage and since the end of the 1980s, I have collected about 2,000 coins. It was catalogued in two volumes in Sylloge Nummorum Graeocorum series, which are now standard reference books in the domain [of coins]. 

I saw that coinage was much neglected in Turkey. This is because they are difficult to display. Coins are more than collection items that are pretty to own and to show; they require a real knowledge of the time of the city it belongs. It requires real work to understand the symbols on it. It is work.

Many collectors also start with what is closest to them – for physical reasons. Fortunately for me, what I had in my proximity was one of the most important sites in the world, Caria, where the first coins were minted.

Are coins, besides being historical testimonies and works as art as you say, also a display of the power of the sovereign? What do the coins in your collection tell us about Anatolian antiquity? Was there a monetary unity there?

Surely money is a display of sovereignty. Until Alexander the Great, the rulers did not put their faces on the coin, they used symbols. After that, they started putting their own likeness.

There was no Monetary Union in Anatolia; each city has its own money, its own symbol. What happened was that some cities sometimes recognized the value of each other’s coins. This is relatively easy, because the money back then is based on the value of the metal, not of symbolic value. Examples of “common currency” are rare. There is the rare instance of six cities coming together in 400 B.C. and minting coins that on one side had a picture of Hercules fighting with the snake and on the other side, their city symbols.  Why they did this, what was the alliance about is unknown. But unlike the “Monetary Union,” which we know as a stable structure, these are not continuous alliances.

Is it difficult to be a collector?

It is certainly a lot of responsibility. You are the trustee of a great heritage. These are delicate objects, whose restoration and display is very difficult. Moreover, any damage can put you in a very difficult position. It is not an enviable position. 

The exhibition at the Arkas Art Center was not only rich but aesthetically pleasing, with a great deal of information made available. We do not always see that in museums in Turkey. Do you think there is improvement in Turkish public museums?

Turkey is a country rich in heritage and we have a great deal to display in our museums in terms of archeological heritage.  In some countries, it is just the opposite: there is very little to display in the museums but the items they display are displayed well, with good architectural design. What we need to make sure in Turkey is to build museums with good architectural design. In such a case, museums themselves become centers of attraction. For example, İzmir Archeological Museums, which is a mine of archeology, needs a better building – one that should be made by an internationally renowned architect.

In the opening of the ceremony, both you and Arkas emphasized the need for young people to know about heritage. How can this be encouraged?

This is an education. The history of this land is very rich. When I was a child, our schools used to take us on museum tours. Both schools and parents should take the responsibility for teaching the next generation of the heritage they sit on. Popcorn and cinema would only take you so far...

Who is Muharrem Kayhan?

Muharrem Kayhan, born in 1955 in İzmir, is presently vice-chairman of the board of Söktaş, which produces fine fabrics at its two factories in Turkey and India. He has represented the interests of the Turkish textile industry in various European Union platforms while serving on the boards of the Chamber of Industry, the Exporters’ Union, and the Textile Employers’ Association. He has served as Chairman of TÜSIAD (Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association) between 1997 and 1999. Muharrem Kayhan serves on the board of trustees of Robert College, his alma mater, and is a member of the board of the İzmir Culture, Art and Education Foundation.

Two men, two restorations

Lucien Arkas and Muharrem Kayhan, businessmen with Aegean roots, have played a crucial role in restoring two important historical buildings in their hometowns.

The Arkas Art Centre: An impressive scene for exhibitions of avant-garde photographs, Ottoman carpets and 19th century paintings describing both sides of the Aegean, the Arkas Art Centre functions as a modern and user-friendly museum in İzmir. The building was used by the French since 1875 as their consulate in İzmir and survived the earthquake of 1904 and several fires. A cross between the typical Greek houses and a French official building with a courtyard, the consulate, which often served to gather Turkish and French intellectuals and artists, was a stone’s throw away from the Great Theater of İzmir, where Sarah Bernhardt performed. The theater was burned down in 1924, but the consulate survived.

It was Arkas Holding that proposed to save the building from slowly falling apart, a fate the German and Greek consulates on İzmir’s water front suffered through. The French government leased it for artistic and cultural purposes to Lucien Arkas, the city’s favorite “native son” of French origin, whose influence and patronage extends from wine-production to shipping, from arts to sports. While part of the building is used as offices of the honorary consul, the main parts of the building, including its glorious front facing the sea, has been the Arkas Art Center since 2011. After a careful “restoration” period, the building became the Arkas Art Centre with ten different rooms, all with high ceilings and polished floors. A bust of Louis XIV, the sun king, dominates the main corridor on the first floor, to remind visitors of the heritage of the building.

Since 2011, the center has hosted a diverse range of exhibitions, both from Turkish and international artists. Earlier exhibitions mainly depended on Mr. Arkas’ own collections, but since 2014, it has brought in high-quality exhibitions, accompanied by excellent school and adult visits for art-lovers, a good virtual tour and excellent social media presence.

The Ilyas Bey Mosque: The Kayhan family’s Söktaş textiles were invested in a landmark conservation project to restore the local Ilyas Bey mosque, an early-Ottoman gem near Aydın. The mosque is part of a complex consisting of a madrasah, a religious educational institute, and a hammam, a bath building. The prayer hall is covered by a dome measuring 14 m (46 ft) in diameter, which is made of brick and covered with tiles, sits on an octagonal base that rests on the four walls. The brick minaret collapsed in the 1955 earthquake. The complex is situated within the Miletus archaeological site. Next to the complex, ruins of a villa with a bath were discovered dating back to Byzantine times. Söktaş employed local craftsmen and national specialists and, after many years of painstaking work, the project was finally completed and opened for community use. In 2012, the project has received the Europa Nostra Award, an EU award for protecting heritage.

Asked whether he would also like to create a museum, Kayhan simply replies, “I have no such plans…yet.”