Exhibiting ‘Turkishness’ at a Time of Flux in Turkey: An Ethnography of the State

Exhibiting ‘Turkishness’ at a Time of Flux in Turkey: An Ethnography of the State

Canan Nese Karahasan

(Department of Sociology, University of Edinburgh, UK, 2015)

Supervisors: Michael Rosie, James Kennedy


Canan Nese Karahasan recently received her Ph.D. degree in sociology from the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. research is an ethnographic study of the state, focusing on exhibiting oppositionary, namely secular Republic and Islamic Ottoman, pasts of ‘Turkishness’ in competing state museums (Anıtkabir and Topkapı Palace museums) at a time of flux in Turkey. Her research interests include Turkish nationalism, museums, ethnography of the state, and secularism and Islam in Turkey.




Dissertation abstract

This thesis investigates the contested processes of displaying ‘Turkishness’ in competing state museums in Turkey at a time when over the last decade secularist-Kemalist state power has been overturned under neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party government. It poses the question: how are the oppositionary – namely secular Republican and Islamic Ottoman – pasts of ‘Turkishness’ remembered, forgotten, and negotiated in Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s mausoleum, and Topkapı Palace Museum, the imperial house at a time of flux in Turkey? Anıtkabir, under the command of the Turkish Armed Forces, the guardian of secularism, and Topkapı Palace, linked to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, an arm of the government, are more than pedagogical warehouses of the state, displaying contending pasts. They are state institutions, endowed with diverse power sources in exhibiting the binaries of ‘Turkishness’ polarised between West-modern-secular and East-backward-Islam.

Through an ethnography of these agencies of the state, this research traces the negotiation processes of exhibiting the competing pasts of ‘Turkishness’. The focus of this study is twofold. First, it explores how different bureaucratic practices in Anıtkabir and Topkapı Palace museums act as power mechanisms among museum staff and vis-à-vis visitors. Second, it looks at the ensuing representations of ‘Turkishness’. ‘Civil servant mentality’, as coined by the members of the museum staff in Topkapı Palace, and being ‘servants of the state’, as expressed by the cultural producers of Anıtkabir Museum, work in reproducing and challenging established power relations. In both museums, bureaucracy safeguards the Kemalist imagination of ‘Turkishness’ that replaced the decadence of the Empire with the formation of the modern Republic. Competing traditions and national days pertaining to Islamic Ottoman and secular Republican histories are re-invented both through daily museum performances and museum events that fall beyond the bureaucracy of exhibition-making. However, formal/informal processes of exhibition-making reveal that these institutions do not reproduce stable categories of Islamism/neo-Ottomanism or secularism/neo-Kemalism. Binaries of ‘Turkishness’ are crystallised through Topkapı Palace and Anıtkabir museums’ perceptions of their visitors and their re-enactment of competing fragments of history. Museums’ institutional ‘high culture(s)’ reflect on the ways in which they relate to the competing pasts they are exhibiting. In Topkapı Palace Museum, a Westernised-modernised ‘high culture’ and imperial life are portrayed, while Anıtkabir simultaneously re-sacralises and humanises Atatürk’s cult in creating a ‘horizontal comradeship’. Therefore, this study argues that binaries of ‘Turkishness’ are not irreconcilable; rather they are reversed, negotiated, and transformed in the quest for state power in the everyday practices of these museum bureaucracies.


Inspiration to undertake this research

As the child of an architect working in the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, I spent a considerable amount of my childhood running around in museum courtyards and exhibition halls. Besides my emotional attachment to museums, my point of departure was to see how the Turkish state re-imagines the ‘homogenous time’ of the nation and displays an image of ‘Turkishness’ in its museums. More specifically, I was interested in the transformation of this state-shaped image of nationness at a time when the Kemalist-secularist state power and its official state ideology have been overturned by the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party government. Within this context, I wanted to see how the Turkish state, in its contested form, negotiates and displays oppositionary pasts of ‘Turkishness’ in its own museums. While state museums act as mirrors of the state, as institutions endowed with competing sources of power they function differently and prepare displays accordingly. Therefore, among many state museums in Turkey, I focused on Topkapı Palace and Anıtkabir museums, not only due to the competing pasts they are displaying but also the competing institutions and power networks they are affiliated with.


An in-depth look into one aspect of the dissertation

The making of ‘Turkishness’ by competing actors of the state entails ‘choreography’ (Kadıoğlu and Keyman 2011) between binaries of West/East, secular/sacred, modern/backward, and oppressed/oppressor. These binaries do not merely overlap or coincide. Likewise, they are not only overturned, but also reconciled and transformed in the quest for power. Topkapı Palace Museum shifts an image of the corrupt Islamic Ottoman Empire and hails an image of already modern sultans and palace life. In Anıtkabir, the secular Republican past and the National Struggle are displayed as popular movements led not by a symbolic and distant cult, but by the human Atatürk as a religiously traditional yet secular figure. Therefore, within the political polarisation of Turkey, these museums do not merely reproduce Islamist or secularist versions of Turkish history. Instead, they reconcile, negotiate, and thereby transform the binaries that reproduce this polarisation.

These findings reflect upon Raphael Samuel’s suggestion to view the ‘invention of tradition as a process rather than an event’ (2012:17). This research does not seek to identify events, artefacts and exhibitions in their relation to fixed binaries of ‘Turkishness’ such as West/East; secular/Islamic; good/bad; oppressed/oppressor. Rather, it traces the making of ‘Turkishness’ through the creation of competing ‘high culture[s]’ associated with these binaries. Unlike Gellner’s (1983) universalistic and standardised notion of ‘high culture’, these processes distinguish and elevate particularistic understandings of ‘ourselves’ and ‘our history’.


Perspective on the fields of nationalism, ethnicity, and race

I pursue an ‘eventful approach’ (Brubaker 1996) to nationalism to highlight the contested processes that make up nationhood and ethnicity. These processes are embedded in the minute details of everyday life and in a network of ‘power sources’ (Mann 1986). They reveal the ways in which nationhood and ethnicity are constructed, negotiated, and transformed by different stakeholders, disrupting the taken-for-granted binaries about ‘ourselves’ and ‘the others’. This approach moves beyond dichotomous ways of studying nationalism, which categorise nationhood or ethnicity in binary oppositionary categories (Western/Eastern, ethnic/civic, and good/bad forms of nationalisms). Likewise, it also shifts the focus away from monolithic approaches, which view nationness or ethnic identities as ‘one-way’ (top-down/bottom-up) constructions. Without undermining the role of the state, I approach ‘the state’ as disunity and with a particular emphasis on its daily (inter-institutional and intra-institutional) power mechanisms. I provide a perspective from within the state, which deliberates, negotiates, and reproduces nationhood through its routine bureaucracy and decision-making processes.


Reflections on the job market

I believe that there is a growing need for ethnographic research that concentrates on processes, daily routines, and power struggles through which nationhood and ethnicity are reproduced and transformed. A focus on processes not only deconstructs the binaries of nationhood and ethnic identities (us/the others, secular/sacred, Western/Eastern, and good/bad forms of nationalism), but also demonstrates the ways in which they are utilised, negotiated, and transformed by different (state and non-state) actors. Within this competitive academic environment producing an ever-growing scholarly literature, such research would take us beyond the peculiarities of our case studies towards new horizons for thinking about nationalism and ethnicity. Besides comparative and historical studies, it is significant to bring different dimensions of nationalism and ethnicity together, emphasising the ways in which religion, ethnicity, race, gender, class, and nationhood intermingle. While such intersectional approaches are far from novel, it is not sufficient to show the overlapping and invented natures of nationhood and ethnicity. These phenomena are not invented once and for all by drawing on such different aspects. They are constantly deliberated, (un)made, and transformed. These processes are intricately related with remembering and forgetting the past(s) through which ‘our history’ and ‘ourselves’ are imagined. I think that interdisciplinary cooperation between nationalism, ethnicity and social memory studies is also significant.


If you recently defended a Ph.D. in the fields of nationalism, ethnicity, identity, and/or race and would like to be featured on our blog, please visit here for more information on how to submit your dissertation abstract.

About Junpeng Li 11 Articles
Junpeng Li is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Columbia University in NYC, USA. His areas of research are contentious politics and ethnic politics, with a geographical focus on China.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.