The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, nation or company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals. Museums – just like novels – can also speak for individuals.
The Museum of Innocence is both a novel by Orhan Pamuk and a museum he has set up. From the very beginnings of the project, since the 1990s, Pamuk has conceived of novel and museum together.
The novel, which is about love, is set between 1974 and the early ’00s, and describes life in Istanbul between 1950 and 2000 through memories and flashbacks centred around two families – one wealthy, the other lower middle class.
The museum presents what the novel’s characters used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of, all meticulously arranged in boxes and display cabinets. It is not essential to have read the book in order to enjoy the museum, just as it is not necessary to have visited the museum in order to fully enjoy the book. But those who have read the novel will better grasp the many connotations of the museum, and those who have visited the museum will discover many nuances they had missed when reading the book.
Read this feature by Pelin Turgut in Time Magazine
Orhan Pamuk’s Memory Palace
The Nobel prize-winning novelist and I are seated on a narrow wooden bench, gazing past crimson velvet ropes into a somewhat forlorn attic bedroom. A single bed, a few old postcards tacked up on a wall, a battered suitcase in one corner. “This is the classic museum moment,” says Orhan Pamuk, grinning. “You know, the bed where Winston Churchill once lay, or Ataturk.” But we are in Pamuk’s museum and the joke is on, well, museums. The person whose bed this is — Kemal — doesn’t actually exist. He is a fiction, the protagonist of Pamuk’s latest novel, Museum of Innocence — and yet, this three-story Ottoman house, crammed with objects, is his.
Pamuk conceived of the museum in the mid-’90s, as the novel began to take shape in his head. The story is based on a doomed love affair between Kemal, a wealthy business scion in his 30s, and Fusun, a young shopgirl. Set in the ’70s, around the same time that Pamuk (also born to a well-off Istanbul family) came of age, the book charts a seminal moment in Turkey’s modernization as the city’s elite, desperate to not be “Eastern” and “backward,” struggle with Parisian fashion, premarital sex and alcohol. The period detail becomes obsessive when Kemal loses his paramour and starts collecting items associated with her — hairpins, ornamental dogs, film posters, salt shakers, 4,213 cigarette butts (each painstakingly labeled and assembled by Pamuk, in the real-life museum, as a wall installation).
Pamuk bought the building, tucked into a side street in Istanbul’s antiques district, in 1998 and began collecting objects. Often they helped him write. “It’s that Proustian idea of the power of objects to evoke a memory,” he says. “Like when you find an old cinema ticket in a coat pocket. In a flash you remember the film, who you went with, what kind of a day it was.”
His madeleines are some 1,200 exhibits, organized into 33 boxes or installations that each correspond to a chapter in the book. Each display was individually conceptualized by Pamuk, which helps explain why the museum opened its doors for the first time on April 28. In the process, he reconnected with an earlier incarnation of himself — until 23, the author was an aspiring artist. But, he says emphatically, this is a novelist’s museum, not an artist’s.
In the novel, Kemal’s obsession makes him a laughingstock. Defiant, he conceives of a museum dedicated to the love — and labor — of his life and recruits Pamuk to tell his tale. Kemal (and Pamuk, in real life) visits hundreds of museums, particularly enamored of the small, eccentric ones found in the backstreets of European capitals.
The objects on display in the brick-and-mortar version of the museum are both real and imaginary — part of the fun is trying to figure out which. Some belonged to Pamuk’s family and friends, others came from flea markets; a TV ad for a fizzy drink is entirely fictitious. “None of these were expensive,” he says proudly. “These are everyday objects from a particular period. They are not sacred. But when you make an entire building out of these objects, it creates a different kind of feeling. There is an atmosphere.”
At the heart of Pamuk’s work lies an unspoken anxiety about forever struggling to be something else — more modern, more Western, blonder — and the secret fear that whatever we are, it just isn’t good enough. A Turkish museum, Kemal insists, should show us our lives as they really are. Why not dedicate a museum to what might seem shameful, to a longing to come clean, to admit to very human imperfection and pain? “Perhaps visitors will sit on this bench and cry,” Pamuk muses. “They will come not to find something but to experience it.”
There is a Turkish word for this peculiar melancholy — huzun, a term first used to evoke the ache of man’s loneliness when he is away from God. It’s that lump-in-your-throat feeling you get on your first night in a foreign bed or on encountering your first love years after the affair ended. Pamuk associates huzun with Istanbul and its losses. Shuttered Greek Orthodox churches, Jewish cemeteries and empty Armenian schools hint at Istanbul’s past as the seat of a multiethnic, multilingual empire. But it is also hurtling into an uncertain future. In Pamuk’s lifetime, the city has swelled from 1.5 million inhabitants to 15 million. Gone are sleepy villages on the Bosporus. Tall glass skyscrapers dominate where wolves roamed.
“This is not simply a story of lovers but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul,” Kemal tells us. So too is the museum. “On a modest scale, this is Istanbul’s first city museum,” says Pamuk. “It covers daily life from 1950 to 2000.” But as an ode to human fragility, its huzun is universal.