MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: Possessors and Possessed: Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire

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Possessors and Possessed: Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire, by Wendy M.K. Shaw. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London, UK: University of California Press, 2003. xi + 225 pages. Maps. Illustrations. Notes to p. 245. Bibl. to p. 260. Index to p. 269. $60.

Informed by the novel critical insights offered by postcolonial studies, cultural history today witnesses a growing interest in the ways by which the non-Western world "spoke back" to the West in its own creative modes and multifarious tongues. The present challenge is to map out a more inclusive and diverse history of cultural representation for the modern past, whereby cultures exposed to Western hegemony (through colonization or local programs of modernization) are considered active participants in a complex web of cross-cultural exchange, albeit shaped by the dynamics of an unequal power relationship.

The book under review takes up this challenge, delving into uncharted terrain in the history of Euro-Ottoman cultural exchange. In the context of Late Ottoman history, it focuses on the emergence and development of one of the most symbolically charged institutions serving the modern state, the museum. Shaw's aim is to examine the manner in which this institution, so central to the formation of Western self-identity, was appropriated by the Late Ottoman state, and transformed in accordance with the shifting political agendas and cultural aspirations of the modernizing elite. Shaw investigates the Ottoman museum, alongside the cultural, legal, and scholarly practices that surround it (e.g, archaeology, or antiquities laws), as an index of modes of Ottoman self-identification and projection in the final century of the empire.

The Ottoman Museum's beginnings can be traced back to the 1840s, the early years of the Tanzimat, when it developed out of a dynastic repository of relics and military spolia into a secular collection of arms and Helleno-Byzantine antiquities. In the first chapter, the author situates the emergence of the modern Ottoman museum against the backdrop of traditional practices of collecting in the Ottoman realm, where objects on display served as potent markers of dynastic power and control. Her emphasis on historical continuities, an exception in Late Ottoman studies, is quite pertinent, as it enables the reader to link the particularities of the early museum with pre-existing cultural propensities. The subsequent chapters trace various stages in the development of the museum, from the efflorescence of the antiquities collection under the directorship of Osman Hamdi Bey and the belated addition of an Islamic arts section (1889), to the re-emergence of the military museum under the auspices of the Young Turk regime as an instrument of nationalist propaganda and resistance. …


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