In 2001 Tony Phillipson was appointed as General Manager of the Rahmi M. Koç Museum – RMKM for short. He inherited a fine collection set in two splendid historic buildings by the Golden Horn: however, as a Museum, the RMKM needed urgent attention to many aspects – exhibit curation and design, education, alternative sources of income, and marketing.
Tony had long since believed that the main purpose of a Museum is to educate first and to entertain second, and that the two can easily be combined with good curation and imaginative education programmes. He decided that by prioritising education, he could increase the very low numbers of school visits, and this would also create a strong interest among parents and adults, thus increasing visitor numbers generally and having a positive effect on other revenue sources as well, such as catering, events and the museum shop.
Design and Curation
Before upgrading the other aspects of the Museum, Tony decided to make some significant changes to the way the collection was presented. These included re-arranging exhibits so that they complemented each other better and told a story; rewriting virtually every label so it was easier to read, gave information about the context of each exhibit, and was bilingual (to attract more tourists, who at the time were hardly visiting at all); and starting an audio-visual programme, so that those objects that were too big to operate or move would have recordings and/or films showing how they worked. It was a central tenet of Tony’s that so far as possible these objects should be either in operating condition, or at least the public should be able to touch, hear and even sit in them: experience being the best form of education!
When Tony started at the RMKM, the total visitor numbers per year was 16,000, of which only a very few were students. Tony’s first action was to recruit an experienced teacher to the staff, and then to work with her to create a Museum ‘Education Pack’, highlighting various objects that were relevant to the Turkish School Curriculum, and giving students information and worksheets to complete while touring the Museum. Once this pack was in place, he persuaded the Ministry of Education to write to every School in the Istanbul region and recommend they visit the RMKM. Because of this, the following year more than 150,000 students visited the Museum – a tenfold increase on the previous total!
As a second step, Tony found a substantial sponsor to fund the purchase and staffing of a minivan called the ‘Müzebüs”. Crewed by a driver and a qualified teacher, the Müzebüs (which is still in operation) visited remote and deprived schools in every corner of Turkey, giving a series of special lessons using Museum objects as teaching tools. These two initiatives won the Museum a series of Corporate Social Responsibility awards, and have reached some two million children in the past fifteen years.
The ticket revenue at a museum is rarely sufficient to ‘balance the books’, and the RMKM was no exception. However, the potential of an attractive location by the waterside is considerable, and Tony quickly started marketing the Museum as a location for private and corporate entertainment – from weddings to conferences, from product launches to classic car shows. The unusual venue quickly became popular, and after a few years was holding over 100 events a year, with the income exceeding that from ticket sales.
The other major potential revenue source for museums is temporary exhibitions, and Tony was responsible for bringing several visiting exhibitions, finding sponsors to cover most of the costs thus retaining the ticket revenue for the museum.
Tony also made the most of the resources of the Museum’s founder, Mr Rahmi M Koç, in getting publicity for the activates and collections of the Museum. The media were always interested in being invited to such a prestigious location and in giving print and TV interviews, and the result of this was a very considerable amount of publicity for the Museum. Because of all the above initiatives, the annul visitor numbers stabilised at around 250,000 every year – placing the RMKM firmly amongst some the world’s major museums.
Expanding The Museum
During his tenure at the RMKM, Tony designed and managed the construction of over 7,000m2 of additional exhibition space at various locations around and alongside the Museum, as well as the design and construction of a 1.5km light railway along the shore of the Golden Horn, operated by genuine narrow gauge diesel and steam locomotives.
The RMKM foundation also secured premises in Ankara and Ayvalık, and Tony was responsible for setting up new museum branches in these locations. By far the larger of these was the RMKM in Ankara, located in a 17th century caravanserai, the Çengel Han. This quickly became one of the leading attractions in Ankara, and was followed shortly after by the opening of a 5* boutique hotel – also designed by Tony – in the adjoining caravanserai, called the Divan Çengelhan.