Gwendolyn Collaco is a student in the joint PhD Program in History and Middle East Studies.
How did you become interested in Middle East Studies?
Middle Eastern studies (of the Ottoman variety) first hooked me during the last year and a half of my undergraduate studies, when I was happily pursuing classics and medieval studies at Vassar College. On a whim, I took a class on the conquest of Constantinople and never looked back. The delicious food I encountered during my study abroad in Turkey also motivated me to find a reason to return. Since I had only done two years of Turkish by the end of my BA, I decided to do a master’s degree at the University of Chicago in Middle Eastern Studies to strengthen my language skills for doctoral research.
Why did you choose CMES?
I was immediately drawn to the program’s flexibility and interdisciplinary scope. Since I had done area studies for all of my higher education, I wanted to maintain that holistic approach, and I knew I would need strong training in both history and art history for my research. CMES was able to accommodate these interests even as they transformed over my first couple of years here to take on a more material culture focus.
What are your research interests?
I research the intersections between popular and material culture in the early modern Ottoman Empire. As of now, I’m working on costume albums made in the bazaars of Istanbul and their translations into the turquerie fashion movement in European states. Previously, I had done work on performance and festivity in the Ottoman Empire, particularly on how the green spaces on the waterfront of city became open-air theaters for water spectacles of the early 18th century.
What do you like best about living in Cambridge and studying at Harvard?
The wealth of museums in the area has contributed a great deal to studying here—and I don’t just mean the MFA. Especially after the reopening of the Harvard Art Museums, I have had multiple classes in the art study center and viewing sessions with curators and conservators in the lab. I cannot express what a privilege it is to study these items up close and in person. From Qajar albums and Mughal paintings to World’s Fair ephemera, the collections offer a great scope to explore.
What are your plans after finishing your degree?
I’m keeping my options open. I like the idea of teaching at a university, or of curating collections in a museum or library setting.
Any advice for a prospective student?
During my own decision-making, the most important factor was the campus visit. I got a sense of the program and school that I could never capture from online stats and emails. After admissions when I was torn about which school to choose, the overall vibe of the campus and the warm people I met made a difficult choice suddenly easy. So if you can, visit!