Ulucanlar Prison Museum

Ankara, 2006

Ulucanlar Prison opened in 1925 in Ankara, the  city designed to  serve as the capital of the newly founded republic of Turkey. As Ulucanlar Prison received political prisoners since its inception, looking into its history gives us an insight into the political history of Turkey. The land of the prison is known for having been used as a cemetery earlier, and, when excavations were conducted in 1987 to build a warehouse for the prison on a plot adjacent to it, many human bones were found on the site (Özal, 2017).

It is difficult to name all the famous individuals who were detained, executed or tortured there unjustly, or subject to many human rights violations, over the years, as, in a sense, reflecting the history of Turkey, some were: famous poets such as Nazım Hikmet and Ahmet Arif, politicians such as Osman Bölükbaşı and Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, parliamentarians from the DEP political party such as Hatip Dicle, Leyla Zana, Mahmut Alınak, Orhan Doğan, Sırrı Sakık, Selim Sadak, and Sırrı Süreyya Önder from HDP, journalists such as Cüneyt Arcayürek, dissident filmmaker's like Yılmaz Güney, and young-student revolutionaries like Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan, Hüseyin İnan. Nevertheless it would be useful to recapture the history of Ulucanlar Prison at certain critical periods in the history of Turkey. During the March 1971 military intervention, three student members of the People's Liberation Army of Turkey (Türkiye Halk Kurtuluş Ordusu), Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan ve Hüseyin İnan were sentenced  to death and hung in Ulucanlar Prison on May 6th, 1972.  Following the military coup of  September 12th, 1980, a socialist high school student, 17 years old Erdal Eren was brought there. Although he was underage according to legal regulation, his age was changed to 18 and he was hanged in the prison on December 18th, 1980.

Another major event in the history of prison violations took place in Ulucanlar on September 26th, 1999. At the time, the existing ward system of prisons was gradually being transformed to a cell system (F-Type Prisons).  The prisoners and detainees, particularly the political ones, resisted, and the government responded with a series of operations. Referred to by the government as “Operation Return to Life”, yet known as the “Massacre of December, 19th” (Bayrampaşa-İstanbul) by the media and the broader public, the operation was actually the result of a bloody process. When the Ulucanlar part of the operation was finalized, it resulted in 10 casualties due to the use of guns and chemical gas, and hundreds of seriously injured inmates. This massacre ironically took place under the government of Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit who, himself, had stayed in this prison as an inmate. A Grand National Assembly Commission was established in 2000 to investigate the events that took place in the operation during the transition to the cell- type prisons. According to the report of the commission, the prisoners who died in the operation were killed either by guns or by physical violence. The commission was of the opinion that those who were responsible for rights violations should be punished accordingly. 

Once the new cell-type prisons were opened as planned in 2006, Ulucanlar prisoners were transferred there. During the initial phase, Ankara Metropolitan Municipality wanted to convert the old prison into a shoe bazaar. The Ankara Chamber of Architects, on the other hand, proposed to the Ministry of Justice to transform it into a museum . The Chamber brought together various civil society organizations for nearly a year, discussing the nature of the future museum. In 2008, however, the Altındağ Municipality announced that it would supervise the museumification itself and took control of the process. When the Ulucanlar Prison Museum was finally opened during July 2011, it turned out to be quite different from the memory site planned earlier by the civil society and the Ankara Chamber.


Özal, G. (2017). Ulucanlar Kapalı Cezaevi Müzeye Dönüşüm Sürecinin Analiz Edilmesi (Yayınlanmamış Yüksek Lisans Tezi). Ankara: Atılım Üniversitesi, Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, İç Mimarlık ve Çevre Tasarımı Anabilim Dalı, İç Mimarlık ve Çevre Tasarımı Yüksek Lisans Programı.

Gülsen, E. (2021). “Bir Hafızalaştırma Örneği Olarak Ulucanlar Cezaevi Müzesi: Kimin Hafızası, Hangi Geçmişle Yüzleşme?”. Türkiye’de Geçiş Dönemi Adaleti: Dönüşen Özneler, Yöntemler ve Araçlar - Sempozyum Tebliğleri 27-28-29 Kasım 2020. Hakikat, Adalet ve Hafıza Çalışmaları Derneği Yayınları.

The aim of the memorialization work of the Ulucanlar Museum is explained in its official web site as follows: “During the 81 years, as long as  the Ulucanlar Prison remained open, it witnessed enforcements and executions as well as prisoners' revolts; now in its corridors it hosts culture, arts and hopes. The Ulucanlar Prison has been transformed into a museum, a center for culture and arts by the Altındağ Municipality. By not allowing the prison to be demolished, the Altındağ Municipality not only realized a first in Turkish history, but has also added to the treasures of the country.”  Even though the history of the Ulucanlar Prison is one  of human rights violations in Turkey, it is quite hard to see the renovated building as particularly focussing on these violations. The person who undertook the initiative for the transformation of the prison, the head of Altındağ Municipality Veysel Tiryaki, summarized its purpose with the following words: “Ulucanlar Prison is an important symbol for Ankara. We could not have allowed this site to be destroyed. I believe we have  made an important contribution to the cultural life and tourism of Ankara.” His statement shows clearly that the objective of the Ulucanlar Prison memorializing the broad repertoire of state’s violence in Turkey's prisons is far from being the objective of the Ulucanlar Prison Museum.

The preparation and implementation of the project did not rely on international experience and literature, nor did it adopt a rights-based approach. After the inmates were transferred to other prisons in 2006, Ulucanlar was “purified” and purged of its past.  About one third of its cells were rebuilt. In this respect, it was cut from its past both physically and in terms of perception, and it lost its original appearance.  The museum now focuses on displaying certain objects as symbols of prison life, and surveys its history by giving descriptive information about some famous figures who were imprisoned there. It thus separates the visual representation from its  historical reality and becomes a mere nostalgic depiction of prison life. Another problem with the museum is that the history of the women who were imprisoned there has been totally unrepresented. Although throughout the life of the prison it counted many female inmates for long times, who were subjected to human rights violations, the museum totally fails to remember them. Another group obliterated by the museum is the Kurdish MPs who were imprisoned there. There is no mention of DEP  (Democracy Party) MPs Hatip Dicle, Leyla Zana, Mahmut Alınak, Orhan Doğan, and Selim Sadak who had to stay there for many years. Another former Kurdish MP, Sırrı Sakık, was not allowed to visit the museum. The name of Sırrı Süreyya Önder who was once a member of BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) and who later transferred to the HDP (People's Democracy Party) was erased from the record and replaced by the name of a former AK Party member, Selçuk Özdağ.  The section where the former prime minister Ecevit had stayed was demolished and transformed into a cafeteria. 

Considering the number of individuals visiting the museum since its opening, the museum does not lack popularity. Yet, from the perspective of confronting the past and focussing on human rights violations, it cannot be said that it meets the basic principles of memorialization projects. 

The main issue in the process of  transforming the prison into a human-rights-centered museum (2006-2011) was the exclusion of civil society organizations which had earlier been active in the process.  Immediately after the evacuation of its inmates, there were rumors that it would be demolished and turned into a shoe bazaar; in response, the Union of the Chamber of Engineers and Architects  appealed to the Ministry of Culture “Board for the Protection of Culture and Nature”, which placed the prison under protection in 2007. The, in 2008, the Ministry of Justice, Ankara Bar Association, Ankara Chamber of Architects,  and the Altındağ Municipality signed a protocol for converting the prison into a museum (Gülsen, 2021).   As soon as the building was vacated, the Chamber of Architects undertook a number of  activities. The prison was visited many times, thousands of photographs taken, all sorts of historical evidence concerning its past were collected; long talks were held with the prisoners who had stayed there, competitions organized as to what the prison museum should look like, and a major effort made to include young architects and civil society organizations as partners in the project, However, all this endeavor was shelved when the Altındağ Municipality took control of the project, without taking into account these previous initiatives, and started its work of graying out the past. Thus, parts of the prison were destroyed and demolished. The rest were not restored according to the original. In this fashion, the remaining parts of the Ulucanlar Prison were transformed by purged from their historicity.  The museum, receiving each year hundreds of thousands of visitors, was perceived and designed as a site of tourism, instead of becoming a site of memory. On the other hand, although the forensic reports revealed that a massacre had taken place in the prison in 1999, 161 soldiers accused of shooting 10 inmates from a close distance were acquitted in 2008.