Museums of Melancholy: Empire, Antiquities, and Cultural Policy in Turkey

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Museums of Melancholy: Empire, Antiquities, and Cultural Policy in Turkey

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This dissertation explores how the contemporary Turkish government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seeks to govern antiquities as a way of staking claim to national history, territory, and power, as well as how such ambitions can be undermined by the ‘ruins’ of antiquities. To unpack these processes, my dissertation poses and addresses two interconnected research questions. First, it asks: how does the Turkish government attempt to mobilize cultural artifacts and sites toward political ends? This ‘mobilization’ brings together distinct processes such as the repatriation of nearly 8,000 artifacts from abroad; the construction and renovation of over a hundred museums across the country; ‘de-museumification’ through the conversion of museums into religious sites; and funding for extensive archaeological excavations. In addressing this question, I show how these seemingly contradictory practices are, in fact, sustained together through the logic of what I call an ‘antiquities regime.’ Rather than purporting nationalist origin myths, this regime uses museums and repatriated artifacts as a redemptive act and a “cure” for melancholy rooted in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. However, just as melancholy can not so easily be “cured,” these material remains of the past are not so easily claimed, managed, and used. Rather, these cultural sites and artifacts persist into the present and come into play in ways that cannot always be anticipated. As such, my dissertation also asks: how do these material remains of the past undermine and thwart the regime’s attempts to claim and use them? In addressing this question, my dissertation explores the instability of ‘antiquities regimes’ and the limits of the government’s attempts to “use” and “abuse” historical artifacts for present-day political gains.



University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2022. Major: Anthropology. Advisors: Hoon Song, Jean Langford. 1 computer file (PDF); iv, 285 pages.

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Van Paepeghem, Britt. (2022). Museums of Melancholy: Empire, Antiquities, and Cultural Policy in Turkey. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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