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Kamer Aga-Oglu

Kamer Aga-Oglu was curator of the Museum’s Asian collections from 1945 to 1974. An extraordinary scholar, Aga-Oglu single-handedly transformed the study of Asian ceramics, focusing particularly on understudied Asian trade wares in the Museum’s collections.

Aga-Oglu was born on October 15, 1903, in Shusha in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and she completed her early schooling in Baku in the South Caucasus. In 1921, following years of violence and the Bolshevik invasion, her family fled on foot to Turkey and then to Western Europe. Aga-Oglu attended several European universities before earning an AB in Oriental History from the University of Istanbul in 1927.

In 1937, Aga-Oglu enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, earning a master’s degree in Oriental art history in 1938. She was soon hired as a research assistant in the Museum of Anthropology, though she left the University briefly during World War II to lecture in the U.S. Army training program. In 1945, she was appointed assistant curator of what was then called the Oriental Division; she advanced to associate curator in 1951 and curator in 1956. Throughout her entire tenure at the Museum, she was the Museum’s only woman curator.

Between 1949 and 1962, Aga-Oglu was a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. In 1962, she became an associate professor in anthropology and in 1964 was appointed associate professor in the History of Art Department, where she was promoted to professor in 1964.

Aga-Oglu was not a field archaeologist. Instead, she was an extraordinary scholar of the remarkable Asian archaeological collections held by the Museum, particularly the important Philippine collections made by Carl Guthe. Her analysis and many publications and conference presentations on these materials made invaluable contributions to Asian archaeology and helped establish the Museum’s collection of Asian ceramics as one of the most important in North America. Her work remains among the definitive founding studies of the field.

Aga-Oglu traveled to museums around the world to study their collections. On the Ann Arbor campus, she curated a number of major exhibitions at the Museum of Art and in other venues, and she regularly contributed to the development of smaller exhibitions in the rotunda and fourth-floor galleries of the University’s Museum of Natural History.

Carla Sinopoli, the current curator of the Asian Collection, writes, “I am regularly astonished by Kamer’s foresight and depth of knowledge about the collections. She was far ahead of her time in her understandings of Asian ceramics, especially given that much of her work was conducted long before scientific excavations of kiln sites had begun. Her work remains relevant today, and it is an ongoing treat to discover her handwritten notes in the collections and continue to learn from her.”