Since the museum’s content was not designed or carried out from the perspective of human rights violations, its impact requires a critical assessment. In 2006, when the prisoners had been transferred to other jails, this prison was literally purged its past, cleaned and renovated, and a third of the cells were actually rebuilt. Thus the memorial was stripped of its past in a physical and visual sense, losing its original appearance to a certain extent. The main focus of the museum has been the exhibition of certain objects symbolizing life in the prison, along with descriptive information about ex-prisoners who were or are public figures in Turkey. In this way, the visual content of the museum was distanced from its reality, and remained limited to a nostalgic view of life in prison. Another crucial problem with this memorial is its exclusion of the memory of female prisoners. Although numerous female prisoners were held in the prison and exposed to human rights violations for decades, the Museum of Ulucanlar Prison includes no commemoration of women’s presence in Ulucanlar. In addition, some parts of the prison, such as the area where former Turkish PM Bülent Ecevit was held, were dismantled and turned into a cafeteria. Overall, since the number of visitors to the prison has been quite high, there is no question that the museum is popular; nevertheless, it would be misleading to claim that the Museum of Ulucanlar Prison fulfills core principles of memorialization projects that focus on human rights violations and confront past wrongdoings.
Ulucanlar Prison was built in 1925, following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Thus looking at the history of this prison also means analyzing the history of politics in Turkey, since many political prisoners were incarcerated in Ulucanlar. It is almost impossible to mention the names of all the prisoners who were imprisoned unjustly and subjected to torture or execution in Ulucanlar Prison. They include parliamentary deputies such as Osman Bölükbaşı, prime ministers such as Bülent Ecevit, famous poets such as Nazım Hikmet and Ahmed Arif, journalists such as Cüneyt Arcayürek, directors such as Yılmaz Güney, and revolutionary leaders such as Deniz Gezmiş. Certain historical episodes brought Ulucanlar Prison to the attention of the entire country, and are thus important to analyze. Following the military intervention in 1971, the Turkish army established a technocratic government that amended the constitution, curbed civil liberties, and began a campaign against the revolutionary youth movement in Turkey. Three prominent leaders of the People’s Liberation Army of Turkey were imprisoned in Ulucanlar Prison and subject to various rights violations. The court condemned them to death and ordered the execution of Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan on May 6, 1972. After the 1980 military coup, Erdal Eren (17), a leftist high school student, was also imprisoned in Ulucanlar. He was executed on December 18, 1980, after his age was officially changed to 18 since it was not legally permissible to hang someone under 18. One of the cruelest episodes in the history of the prison happened on September 26, 1999. To increase the level of isolation, the military decided to transfer political prisoners from wards to cells, and began a bloody operation in prominent Turkish prisons that mainly targeted prisoners resisting this transformation. The state called this operation “Returning to Life,” but it was called “The December 19 Massacre” by the prisoners. When the operation ended in Ulucanlar Prison, 10 prisoners had been killed and hundreds seriously wounded. In 2000, the Turkish Parliament formed an investigative commission to find out what happened during the operation. The report concluded that prisoners were killed either by guns or physical violence, confirming that a massacre took place in the prison. The commission also called for punishment of the perpetrators.
After new prisons were built in Ankara that provided for greater inmate isolation, prisoners were transferred from Ulucanlar Prison to these prisons; the process was completed in 2006. Ankara Metropolitan Municipality wanted to turn Ulucanlar prison into a bazaar for shoemakers. However, the Ankara Chamber of Architects proposed to the Ministry of Justice that the prison be turned into a museum. It organized various civil society organizations around the memorialization project and worked to implement it for more than a year. But in 2008, Altındağ Municipality took control and began to implement its own design for a museum. The museum opened in June 2011 with a design that is very different from what the civil society initiative had hoped for.
On the official website of the Museum of Ulucanlar Prison, the mission of the memorialization project is described in the following way: “Ulucanlar Prison, which was known for executions, torture and suffering for 81 years, is now taking on a totally different task. The prison now hosts people not for denial, but to learn lessons from the past and bring renewed hope, rather than forgetting.” Although the history of Ulucanlar Prison is one of human rights violations, this memorialization project does not focus primarily on these rights violations. The purpose of the memorial was best articulated by Altındağ mayor Veysel Tiryaki, who came up with the idea of turning the prison into a museum: “Ulucanlar Prison is an important symbol for Ankara. We would not permit the demolition of this place. I think we added an important element to cultural life and tourism in Ankara.” The mayor’s perspective on this project makes it difficult to claim that it was primarily motivated by a desire to come to terms with the past wrongdoing of the Turkish state in Ulucanlar prison.
The main challenge in the course of transforming Ulucanlar Prison into a human rights-focused museum (2006-2011) was the exclusion of the civil society actors that had first thought of turning it into a memorial. The Ankara Chamber of Architects had visited the prison just after it was emptied, taken thousands of photographs, collected historical evidence about the prison, talked to victims and/or ex-prisoners, initiated a design contest, and used various mechanisms to involve other civil society organizations and young architects in the process. However, the memorialization project proposed by the civil society initiative was gradually shelved and Altındağ Municipality then implemented its own project, which neutralized the memory of the prison. Meanwhile, forensic reports confirmed that a massacre took place in Ulucanlar Prison in 1999, yet the Court of Serious Crimes in Ankara granted impunity in 2008 to 161 soldiers who had shot 10 prisoners at close range and seriously wounded many others.