Esin Gülsen

The Ulucanlar Prison project says what it wants to say, but it doesn’t listen to those subjected to abuses.

Kemal Taylan Abatan spoke with Esin Gülsen about the Ulucanlar Prison Museum. Ulucanlar Prison opened in Ankara in 1925, shortly after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. Examining Ulucanlar opens a very valuable window into Turkey’s political history, as it has been used to house political prisoners since its first year. For the entirety of its existence as a prison, Ulucanlar was the site of various, severe rights violations, particularly executions, and torture. The process of Ulucanlar’s transformation into a museum wasn’t exempt from problems either. The inmates at Ulucanlar began to be transferred once the prisons with the new cell system opened in Ankara in 2006. The Ankara Chamber of Architects submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Justice to convert the prison into a museum. Over the course of a year, the Chamber of Architects met with various civil society organizations and conducted studies on what kind of museum it should be. Then in 2008, the Municipality of Altındağ declared that it alone would conduct the transformation from prison to a museum and took control of the process. When the Ulucanlar Museum opened in July 2011, it was quite different than what those involved earlier had envisioned. Here, Esin Gülsen shares her research on what happened during the process of converting Ulucanlar Prison into a museum.

Image İ
All photos belong to Zehra Nazlı. 


Why is it important to remember and memorialize grave human rights abuses?

In the period following grave human rights abuses, the most important demands are to have the truth revealed and mete out justice for the people subject to the violations as well as for their relatives. In addition to punishing those responsible, mechanisms of restorative justice are also of great importance. Memorialization works are one such mechanism, as they serve to confront the past and establish social peace by striving to prevent what happened in the past from happening again, educate new generations about the past, be instrumental in apologizing to victims and their relatives, and create a space for mourning that couldn’t exist before.

Memorialization of human rights abuses has the potential to play a healing role both individually and socially, as its primary function is to acknowledge that these violations occurred and recognize the suffering of those subjected to them. Memorial sites and monuments also play a transformative role, as they’re accessible to many people and those from different segments of society, which allows them to question and discuss what happened in the past.

How did the idea of undertaking a work of memorialization for Ulucanlar Prison come about? Who was involved?

After Ulucanlar Prison was shuttered in 2006, news came that it would be demolished and the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality would replace it with a shoemaker’s bazaar, which the architecture chamber of the Ankara branch of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) then moved to prevent. Upon its petition, the Culture and Natural Heritage Preservation Board of the Ministry of Culture registered the prison in 2007, and placed it under protection. That same year, with the initiatives of the TMMOB Ankara branch, the prison opened to the public for two weeks, at which time there were various interviews, panels, and workshops there. Then in 2018, the TMMOB Ankara branch, Municipality of Altındağ, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ankara Bar Association signed a protocol to transform the prison into a museum and cultural center. About 600 proposals were submitted to the Urban Dreams competitions, which the TMMOB Ankara branch organized in order to select a project to transform the prison into a museum. In the end, though, there was a big difference between the winning project and what was actually implemented due to interventions by the Municipality of Altındağ, which had the effect of severing the relationship between the TMMOB and the municipality. After the Prison Museum opened to the public in 2011, its management passed to the Municipality of Altındağ. Other than the four-party protocol, civil society organizations such as the Federation of the Revolutionary 78ers were excluded from the process despite them wanting to contribute to the project

How did the idea of undertaking a work of memorialization for Ulucanlar Prison come about? Who was involved?

First of all, I should emphasize that the Ulucanlar Prison Museum is a top-down, non-participatory project. Therefore, it doesn’t actually speak to anyone, as it doesn’t contain the reciprocity that conversation requires. The project says what it wants to say, but it doesn’t listen to those subjected to abuses.

Image i

The political and social impacts that the project has created and can create are shaped by how the museum is organized, what kind of content it presents to visitors, whose memory it keeps alive, and what it ignores. The museum lost its originality to a great extent and its historical reality has been destroyed, as it was established to serve the cyclical needs of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. The entire administration of the Municipality of Altındağ, and most importantly the mayorship, is also fully in the hands of the AKP. The museum is touted as one of the most important tourist sites in Ankara, and therefore, the purposes for why people visit and their expectations are largely shaped by this.

Despite having the potential to confront the past as one of the rare memorialization projects in Turkey, it doesn’t meet this purpose very well at all, particularly because it ignores the existence of women, Kurdish politicians, and revolutionaries, and tries to portray those imprisoned as groups independent of their ideologies, equally wronged and with homogeneous experiences. As it stands, it’s become the narrative of the AKP government, which attempts to completely divorce itself from past abuses and blames past governments’ anti-democratic practices for what happened.

What have been and currently are the difficulties and what has been beneficial that working in the field of remembrance and memorialization have created in Turkey?

Discussions on social memory and memorialization initiatives gained visibility toward the end of the 2000s in Turkey. One of the factors that makes it difficult to work in this field is that it’s new and there are still few examples of it. But more importantly, official memorialization projects, such as the Ulucanlar Prison Museum, are far from participatory, as they’re done in line with daily political interests—they don’t have continuity and can be quickly built and destroyed according to the changing needs of the government over time as was seen in the ever-changing discourse over the years in the examples of the Monument to Humanity, the ‘38 Dersim Monument and the transformation of Diyarbakır Prison into a museum. In short, the problem of the continuity, or permanence, of the projects in this field makes the work more difficult.

One of the significant difficulties of working in this field is that the issues that projects try to memorialize continue today—the past hasn’t stayed in the past. While the emphasis is put on the abolition of the death penalty by hanging, as one of the most important symbols of gross human rights abuses in the past, and the dead are commemorated in the courtyard of the Ulucanlar Prison Museum, debates about the reinstatement of the death penalty still arise from time to time. This also complicates the issues that need to be faced and reconciled.

Image i


How do you evaluate the relationship between the quest for justice and efforts for memorialization? Could such remembrance efforts play a role in actions to ensure justice? If so, could you explain?

One of the most important problems for those subjected to gross human rights violations and for society, in general, is how justice is served and how its mechanisms operate after such violations. While one branch of the search for justice is based on criminal justice, that is, the individual punishment of the perpetrators, the other is based on restorative justice. Prosecuting and punishing perpetrators alone is both insufficient and often impossible. In times of serious violations, facts such as that countless people, even if they aren’t the direct perpetrators, give their consent to the events and indirectly contribute to them, make it impossible for all of those responsible to be prosecuted. Moreover, what will calm the hearts, so to speak, of those who are subjected to these violations is not only the punishment of those responsible but also actions such as revealing the truth, officially accepting that injustices and violations occurred, recognizing the suffering experienced by society and rehabilitating the victims. In this context, memorialization projects as a part of restorative justice play an important role in both establishing justice for victims and re-establishing social norms of what is just.

When you look at examples from Turkey, or from around the world, how are collective memory and memorialization initiatives considered today? What’s your opinion about the future of the field?

Memorialization initiatives have become widespread and diversified both in Turkey and around the world. There are now more projects than ever that take into account the needs and expectations of the victims and/or subjects, are more visible in the public sphere, and invite the addressee to interpret and question without dictating a direct message. At the same time, although memorialization projects are still few and far between, it seems promising that efforts organized from below are being carried out by local initiatives. In order for these studies to reach their goals, I think there’s a need to think in more detail about what the victims expect, what they want, and what kind of impact the project has the potential to have, taking into account the myriad social, political, psychological, architectural and aesthetic dimensions involved.

Friday, May 20, 2022