Visitors to Istanbul once had to comb through the Grand Bazaar or make their way around the city to individual studios in order to find high-quality work by local craftspeople and designers. But that has changed in recent years, as many of the city’s museum stores have been reconceived, moving beyond the realm of souvenir shops to become sophisticated boutiques offering well-made handicrafts and sought-after design pieces.
This new vision for museum stores is especially clear at venues managed by Bilkent Culture Initiative (BKG in Turkish), whose diverse product line-up includes decorative pieces, textiles, accessories, stationery, children’s items, books and other publications. BKG took over the operation in 2009 of shops in dozens of state-owned museums and historical sites around the country, including the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and Kariye Museum in Istanbul. The result is modernised stores offering good-quality products and a wider range of items.
Noted Turkish artisans are commissioned to create pieces for BKG shops, employing the country’s traditional crafts and art forms, including ebru (paper marbling), ceramic making and metalwork. Among these artists are Mehmet Gürsoy, a master of the art of making İznik and Kütahya-style tiles and ceramics, Vural Kösem, a skilled ebru artist, and calligrapher and miniatures painter İsmet Keten.
While the bulk of BKG’s collection is consistent across all locations, products unique to each museum and historical site have also been developed. Especially noteworthy are the replicas of cultural and artistic treasures. Among these, BKG has produced 10 limited-edition life-size replicas of the emerald-encrusted ‘Topkapı Dagger’ (made famous by the 1964 heist film Topkapi), which are for sale at the Topkapı’s shops and via the company’s website. For a considerably lesser sum, visitors enthralled by the legendary 86-carat ‘Spoonmaker's Diamond’ – displayed, like the dagger, in the palace’s treasury rooms – can purchase earrings, rings and cufflinks with tiny representations of the gem.
BKG’s replicas are not limited to glittering jewels, however; ceramic pieces and metalwork are also among the offerings. The shop at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts offers reproductions of one of the highlights of the museum’s collection: a 13th-century bronze doorknocker with figures of a lion and dragons that once decorated the Great Mosque in the ancient city of Cizre in eastern Anatolia. Those looking for a more lightweight souvenir can pick up magnets, journals and bookmarks with images of the masterpiece.
Not everything in BKG’s museum shops is traditional; products inspired by modern Turkey are equally appealing. The Istanbul Collection features contemporary designs based on the city’s most famous landmarks and symbols, including the Bosphorus, Galata Tower, Maiden’s Tower, seagulls and boats. The scenes and motifs have been reproduced on close to 150 different items, from tea glasses, candles and aprons to cushions, bags and silk scarves. The collection aims to give Istanbul a coherent visual identity, turning it into a brand.
Private museums in Istanbul have kept pace, offering carefully selected collections in their stores that draw on museum holdings and feature work by local designers. The Istanbul Modern – the city’s top museum for modern and contemporary Turkish art – carries work by rising Turkish designers and labels, such as ceramic pieces by Elif Özsezen and Hande Bilten, bags by Istanbul Dresses, and jewellery by Aida Pekin, Erdem Akan and Zeckié. Other products, created specifically for the Modern’s shop, reference the permanent collection, such as jewellery based on the works of 20th-century Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid, and pillowcases and scarves featuring reproductions of paintings by Fikret Muallâ and Ömer Uluç.
The Sabancı Museum in Emirgan, known for its excellent temporary exhibitions and noteworthy permanent collection of calligraphic works and late-Ottoman art, has made a similar effort to support local artisans and designers. Visitors can find beautiful cushions from internationally known Turkish designer label Yastık by Rıfat Özbek and unique jewellery pieces by Tansu Komar. Intricate metal decorative objects from Istanbul-based design brand Sasanna, inspired by Hittite designs and motifs from other ancient Anatolian cultures, are also on sale, alongside ceramic items and silk scarves with traditional prints.
Long favoured by travellers for its history and culture, Istanbul is also increasingly recognised for its rich artistic traditions and budding design scene. By actively promoting this multifaceted identity, the city’s museum shops have proved that they are veritable destinations in themselves.