Sun, 24 Nov 2002

Following Gulbenkian's footstep in humanity

If Indonesia's wealthy elite ever go to Portugal, they must visit the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and its foundation's headquarters at Avenida de Berna 45-A, in the heart of Lisbon.

Why? Because, hopefully, these super-rich folk can learn a valuable lesson in philanthropy from Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955). The British national was the pioneer of the oil industry in the Middle East and later, the founder of this Lisbon museum and its foundation. He is famous for being a super-rich person who shared his great fortune with humanity.

Gulbenkian, also an art collector, was born in Turkey to Armenian parents. His name has always been synonymous with humanity and the arts -- thanks to his art legacy -- and petroleum interests in the Middle East. The establishment of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, the city where he spent the last 13 years of his life, was bequeathed for the people.

The museum -- widely considered to be one of the most valuable of private collections in the world -- is listed by travel books as one of the must-see places to go.

The foundation is acknowledged as one of the biggest in Europe with its present portfolio of US$2.5 billion in the form of diversified international investment.

It was his last wish that over 6,000 valuable pieces -- now divided into Oriental and Classical Antiquity, Islamic Art, Far Eastern Art and European Art -- must be placed under one roof and that materialized after the inauguration of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in 1969.

The 5,000-square-meter museum houses collections of mankind's artistic activities from 2,800 BC to the 20th century.

Browsing the collection, one quickly realizes that Gulbenkian -- also a financial expert -- was an eclectic collector. His tastes ranged from Egyptian sculpture to French furniture, from oriental ceramics to manuscripts, book bindings and old books, from objects of Syrian glass to tapestry textiles, jewelry of Reni Lalique (famous French jewelry designer who lived between 1860 and 1945), Greek coins and Italian renaissance medals.

"This is perhaps the best private Greek numismatic collection in the world," said the museum's curator Maria Deolinda Cerqueira while pointing at a series of silver coins. One of them dates to the late fifth century B.C. profiling the head of the goddess Athena, placed at the Oriental and Classical Antiquity room.

At a special room which hosts the Islamic art collection, there are series of displays from ceramics, glass, illumination, bookbinding to costumes.

Another hall dedicated to the Far East contains porcelain and stones from China and lacquer work from Japan.

Visitors can also admire ivories and illuminated manuscripts that reveal the religious spirit of the Middle Ages in Europe at another room. While the museum's collection of painting, sculpture and decorative arts spans the period of between 15th and 20th centuries.

The museum is just one of Gulbenkian's legacy. A spacious three-story headquarters of the foundation next to the museum -- comprising a hall, meeting rooms, galleries and an art library with more than 160,000 books -- exhibits how his private wealth was dedicated to the people of Portugal.

"We organize regular music concerts. We have an orchestra, a choir and a ballet company. We also hold exhibitions for Portuguese and foreign artists. In education affairs we grant scholarships for specialized studies and doctorates abroad, as well as scientific research and creativity," said Josi Blanco, one of the foundation's trustees.

In recent years, the foundation has extended its activities to almost every country where Portugal has left historical traces. Preserving Portuguese heritage abroad is also the area in which the foundation is involved.

"Our main focus is to promote Portuguese culture through preserving our heritage abroad such as fortresses in Morocco and Mombassa (Kenya) and the Portuguese settlement in Thailand," said Blanco, adding that projects in Indonesia were the restoration of the Taman Sari pool complex in Yogyakarta and Portuguese textile exhibition at the Textile Museum in West Jakarta staged from May to July this year.

Those activities are evidence of how Gulbenkian still contributes to the Portuguese even though he has gone.

-- Ida Indawati Khouw