Edhem Eldem Abstract

Ottoman Imperial Collections in the Nineteenth Century: A Critical Reassessment

Edhem Eldem
Bogaziçi University

Some, but not much, work has been done to this day on the way in which the Ottoman ruling elite, and particularly the palace itself, engaged in collecting art and archaeology throughout the “long” nineteenth century. From palace collections to the Imperial Museum, and from private libraries to coin collections, these efforts have been the object of a few descriptive studies, and of even fewer attempts at analysis and interpretation. Not the least frustrating is the fact that the rare works in the latter direction, due to the lack of a critical approach, have tended to take for granted a number of assumptions that still needed to be verified.

This is particularly true of the issue of audiences and reception, which have been tackled with little consideration for concrete and quantifiable evidence. As a result, Osman Hamdi Bey’s over-studied oeuvre has been interpreted without realizing that it had practically never been exhibited in his own country; the Imperial Museum’s “discourse” has been analyzed with no regard for the hard evidence that its few visitors were almost exclusively foreigners; and we still do not know – partly because we never asked – who apart from Queen Victoria and the Congressmen in Washington, ever got to view even part of Abdülhamid’s famous “Imperial self-portrait,” consisting of over 30,000 photographs.

Ironically then, it seems that most of the work done on the perception and reception of Ottoman collections in this age of modernity have relied on analyses almost exclusively based on the assessment of a reception by, and an impact on, foreign – western – audiences. Had this been the result of a conscious and intended orientation, this bias could have been controlled; yet the underlying and implicit assumption of a total assessment of these collections’ diffusion and impact, it becomes of crucial importance to revisit in a critical and comprehensive way some of the main examples of this phenomenon. This paper will therefore attempt to do so by focusing on the “internal” dynamics behind the constitution of some of the major collections in the hope of answering some basic questions about their meaning and intent, as well as about their perception and reception, if any, at a local level.