Iceland, Part 2

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We spent another day in Reykjavik and visited the Settlement Exhibition (no pics), which I thought was a really fabulous combination of new tech and old school museum display. My favourite part, which is going to be hard to describe without a visual, was a series of small videos showing the landscape around Reykjavik, with ghostly outlines of the 3rd and 4th century inhabitants. It was really effective and simple. In much the same way the museum included the ghostly outlines of complete objects (almost like a white line drawing) behind an archeological shard or remnant of the real thing. It was a nice way to use an archeological fragment that survived centuries without creating a replica.

We also went to the Saga Museum, which was also fun but informative. The museum is made up of tableaux (occasionally gruesomely violent) telling the history of Iceland. Trip Advisor notes that many of the wax figures are actually based on inhabitants of current day Iceland, including the hot dog vendor down the street. I’m not sure of the veracity of that tale, but it certainly adds to the mystique. Also, you can dress up as a Viking at the end, which I totally did (all the while admiring the beautiful linen tunics and realizing that I pretty much dress like a current day Viking, minus the sword and hat). In any case, we were about to start a trek to see the Witchcraft Museum, so I was particularly interested in the witches and sorcerers, of which there were many. Like so many places, prophetesses (like Þorbjörg in the photo above) were valued, if feared, until the imposition of Christianity, when nasty things happened. The picture below is of Sister Katrin who was burned at the stake in 1343 for slander and heresy (or, you know, being a woman, although Iceland holds the dubious title of being the only European country to burn more male than female witches).

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From Reykjavik we made our way north west to the west fjords and Hólmavik where we headed for the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft.

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I have *a lot* to say about this museum, most of which I’m turning into a chapter right now.

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It’s run by a sorcerer, for starters, who will make your dinner (delicious fish stew!) in the restaurant afterwards if you’re lucky. Like many micro-museums it is a collection of real artefacts and replicas, with intensely detailed labelling based on extremely in-depth historical research supplemented with a few flourishes (like a skeleton crawling out of the museum’s floor, and a pair of “necropants,” the description of which boggles the mind).

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The necropants were a tool to gather wealth by supernatural means. Basically a sorcerer would make a pact with a living man that he would be flayed upon his death. The sorcerer would then make a pair of pants from the dead man’s flesh and wear them, and would find the scrotum constantly full of coins. But beware! If the sorcerer died in the pants before passing them on, his body would become full of lice. Better to pass them on to someone else who might benefit from the constant coinage.

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This little milk stealing cutie (a tilberi) was one of the few pieces of magic attributed to women in Iceland (although a number of women were burned at the stake nonetheless).

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One of my favourite parts of the museum was the huge genealogy found upstairs (no pics – it was really hard to photograph). It showed the family and community connections among people who practiced and admitted to witchcraft, those who accused others of practicing witchcraft, and those who were arrested and killed for practicing. Essentially it shows the working out of social and family relations in various bloody ways, and it also illuminates how power was enacted through fear and accusations of witchcraft. It was totally fascinating to see how some families with power and wealth, including women in those families with little other power, could attribute their own illnesses or bad fortune to the witchcraft of others. Those others would then be arrested and often burned at the stake.

The Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum had everything I love in a micro-museum, ranging from fanatic devotion to a topic, to real and fake relics, a small budget, and the attached restaurant just kind of made it for me. Also, just a note, if you follow @SorceryMuseum on twitter there are some farting runes to prevent Trump from winning!

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My other work on plastics elbowed in on the beach in Hólmavik. We’ve been collecting and counting plastics pollution in the Great Lakes, and the beaches in Iceland were similarly covered, mostly in relics from the fishing industry. This one was nice though – the bottom is a whale bone, and the top is a piece of styrofoam, worn by the sea to look almost natural.

Next, on to Bildudalur and the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum.

Iceland, Part 1

In June, I traveled to Iceland to visit three museums: The Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavik, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavik, and the Icelandic Seamonster Museum in Bildudalur.

As the micromuseums project has developed I’ve become increasingly interested in what I’m calling (for now) “somewhat natural histories,” that is, natural histories that don’t really fit within the bounds of traditional museum structures. These include things like odd natural objects and artefacts (such as the enormous collection of animal penises in Reykavik), alternative non-mainstream histories (including history as told through witchcraft and sorcery), and cryptozoology. There are museums dedicated to all of these in Iceland, in part because Iceland has a strong folk history, and in part because after the crash of Iceland’s economy in 2009, tourism was used as a vector to get things back on track. A huge number of small and micromuseums opened around that time, and most of them seem to be thriving. I visited these three and a few larger museums, and already have plans to go back!

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Reykjavik is beautiful, and if there were checkboxes on the things that I love (excellent coffee, cool weather, amazing tights, fresh air), Reykjavik would check all of them.

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At the outskirts of downtown can be found the Icelandic Phallological Museum. I’ve actually been teaching about this museum for years. It has, not surprisingly, attracted a lot of media attention, but to my knowledge there are no scholarly articles about it. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect – cheesy sex museum? natural history collection? In truth, it’s a bit of both, but I loved it! I loved the glass display cases that mimic mainstream museums, I loved the collection of kitsch, and most especially I loved the collection of folk culture and monster “appendages.”

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Throughout the museum there’s a system that lets you know if what you are seeing is a real and documented natural history specimen (green sticker) or a “reproduction” (white sticker). The green stickered items often have a great deal of information attached to them. While the museum itself has a sense of fun the research is quite serious – there are 96 species represented there. If you want to know about whale reproduction, penile morphology, or how to collect animal appendages in Iceland this is the place to come. But so too, if you want to see um, certain parts of the entire Icelandic handball team, or learn about the museum’s (successful!) quest for a human specimen, you might want to visit as well.

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Tim was with me on this part of the trip, and we spent the next couple of days immersed in Iceland, climbing mountains, frolicking on the black sand beaches, dancing in the lupins, swimming outdoors, and just altogether falling in love with the country.

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Summer 2015, Part 2

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We took the ferry from St. John to Digby. It was the most beautiful day, and we stopped in Annapolis Royal for lunch.

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We were in Nova Scotia to see family, but we managed to fit in a couple of visits to museums.

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Tancook Island is pretty special – there’s even a store with a pig hanging out in it!

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And a little library/museum/hooked rug store/jam emporium/kids’ paradise (there’s a dory full of lego).

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I typically don’t include community museums as micromuseums because they usually have a different purpose (recording the history of a local community rather than the passionate interest of an individual). They also often receive government funding, although certainly not always. But, I like them anyway, and sometimes they have treasures in them. Like this – an anvil….

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and Harley Wilson, hoisting said anvil over his head.

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Just saying, if you go to Tancook, and get an ice cream cone while waiting for the ferry, it might come with some … character building advice. On the other hand, someone else waiting for the ferry offered me dried durian, so that was an additional adventure (verdict: gross, but not as gross as truffle honey, which I also ate last year).

We made a few other stops in August, including visiting the Anchor Zine archive (now in Plan B in Halifax, which has the best Labyrinth-themed graffiti in the womens’ washroom).

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We took Lucy back to Hirtles Beach. It’s probably her all-time favourite, but she has to stay on leash because she can’t control her love of eating seaweed and makes herself sick. Every. Single. Time.

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And I finally found time to visit the Lorne Street Fire Hall (a personal collection, complete with two fire engines).

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Hand painted!

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The highlight of the trip, museum-wise, was definitely Peggy of the Cove, which is, as you might expect, on the road into Peggy’s Cove.

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You can’t really miss it. The Peggy of the Cove Museum is a house museum dedicated to a character in a self-published children’s book written by Ivan Fraser, who also gives extremely animated tours of the house. The plot of the book concerns how Peggy’s Cove got its name, ostensibly from the sole survivor of a ship wreck whose name was Margaret (shortened to Peggy). The books are about Peggy as she grows up in her adopted family. The museum is a whole bunch of things: an imaginary version of what Peggy’s house might have looked like, a living advertisement for the books, a house museum belonging to Fraser’s family, and, surprisingly, a setting for a series of miniature displays featuring dolls made by Ivan Fraser’s wife.

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It is definitely random. The website gives a sense of what you might expect. And I can definitely tell you that you will not get away without having your picture taken in the dory, or being regaled with tales of Ivan hosting the (styrofoam) anchor over his head as shocked busloads of tourists drive by on their way to the Cove.

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So that was the summer. With a few dory races, and a requisite picture of Lucy and the Bluenose.

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Summer 2015, part 1

It has been almost a year since this trip, but as I’m departing on new adventures this week, I thought that I would finally update the blog. I’m still working on the micromuseums project, although it has taken a bit of a turn of late (into witchcraft museums!).

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Tim, Lucy, and I left Ontario at the start of August on a hot and stormy day. We followed this weather system most of the way through the province, into Quebec and the rolling hills of the Eastern Townships, before we crossed the border into Vermont.

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The tiny village of Glover, Vermont, is home to the Museum of Everyday Life, run by nurse and puppeteer Claire Dolan, who I had met at the Lost Museum conference. This one-room-in-a-barn institution is one of my favourite micromuseums. It is a self-service museum (turn the lights on when you arrive!) that has held a series of exhibitions elevating mundane objects to new heights. Toothbrushes, matchsticks, and dust are just three of the displays (if you go right now, you can see the new exhibition on mirrors).

“What would it be like to imagine a museum which looked like a giant cabinet of curiosity, but filled with perfectly familiar objects rather than exotic ones?”

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The museum smells amazing – like wood and matchsticks (a combination that probably leads to there always being a fire extinguisher at the door).

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The Museum of Everyday Life is deceptively whimsical. Despite the giant paper scarecrow at the door and the comical stuffed bear inside, the displays, their arrangement, and the exhibitions really do question the role of major institutions. Why shouldn’t we celebrate safety pins and pencils? Don’t these everyday items say more about us than the objects that tend to survive in museum collections (it is well-known that museums tend to over-collect from the wealthy, and that the objects that tend to survive are those that are least used rather than most used)? Besides, a lot of the information about dust, for example, is fascinating.

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Dust from a comet.

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It’s hard to read, but one person sent in dust that they had collected from the collapse of the World Trade Center.

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Lucy enjoyed herself. She hadn’t been in a museum since Roswell and was happy to sniff about and possibly add her hair to the dust exhibition.

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Glover is also beautiful, and the museum is right beside its own lake, with a pony to say hello to.

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The Bread and Puppet Theater is also in Vermont and we made a stop at their museum after buying donuts from a roadside stand. Delicious donuts. I still remember them almost a year later!

Bread and Puppet Theater holds a strong place in my heart as I have, over the years, seen a number of their performances and even participated in one in Ottawa many years ago. That was a whole other adventure where I hitched a ride in their dilapidated school bus back to Montreal while they practiced singing Appalachian hymns. It was a strangely beautiful sound over the rumble of the nearly dying engine. In any case, the museum contains many of the puppets from past performances (though not the one I was in – I looked everywhere). We also visited the theatre, but couldn’t stay for a performance. Next time.

Before leaving Vermont we made one more stop at the Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury.

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It’s not really a museum, although in a sense it is. Established by artist Stephen Huneck after he had been seriously ill, people come from all over, both to bring their dogs for a visit, but also to remember them after they’ve died. People started leaving post it notes in remembrance, and quickly, this happened:

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Well I adore my dog, so I was quickly in lump-in-my-throat-trying-not-to-cry mode reading about everyone else’s love for their dogs. I almost couldn’t handle it when I found a picture of a dog with a face exactly like Lucy’s:

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Onward. We made our way through New Hampshire, Larry the Yaris came to a (literally) screeching halt on the border to Maine, prompting a couple of anxious hours. But we made it to Belfast Maine in fairly good time, where we stayed in a faded-glory mansion right near the water. It was something of a museum in and of itself.

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On our way to the ferry in St John, New Brunswick we made one last stop in Liberty, Maine, to go to Liberty Hardware and the Davisville Museum. The former really is a hardware store, but possibly the most amazing one on earth!

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And the latter is a fairly traditional community museum with a focus on local tools … except for the biocatastrophe and nuclear waste research centre in the attic.

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I would have liked to spend a lot more time here … but it was SO hot up in the attic. I could only handle it for about 10 minutes while Tim sat on the veranda with Lucy.

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End of Part 1.

Mini-Museum

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Here is a nice article about Hans Fex’s Mini-Museums. I have one of these that I use when I’m teaching the Intro to Museum and Curatorial Practice class. It really captures students’ imaginations. There’s just something about a tiny sliver of a comet, some foil from the Apollo 11, a piece of a sauropod, or a miniature clump of dirt from Dracula’s castle….

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/sterling-man-builds-mini-museum-into-thriving-company-with-insatiable-demand/2015/12/20/56f642b0-a029-11e5-a3c5-c77f2cc5a43c_story.html

Museum Reads

Almost every novel I’ve read recently seems to have a museum, and often a micro-museum, in it. Is this a trend? Or do I pick them out? Or do they pick me?

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An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

“It’s hard to explain,” he caught himself saying sometimes to young people who came into his museum, which had formerly been the Skymiles Lounge in Concourse C. But he took his role as curator seriously and he’d decided years ago that ‘It’s hard to explain’ isn’t good enough, so he tried to explain it all anyway, whenever anyone asked about any of the objects he’d collected over the years, from the airport and beyond – the laptops, the iPhones, the radio from an administrative desk, the electric toaster from an airport-staff lounge, the turntable and vinyl records that some optimistic scavenger had carried back from Severn City – and of course the context, the pre-pandemic world he remembered so sharply”

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A beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

“In the afternoon he takes her on his rounds. He oils latches, repairs cabinets, polishes escutcheons. He leads her down hallway after hallway into gallery after gallery. Narrow corridors open into immense libraries; glass doors give way to hothouses overflowing with smells of humus, wet newspaper, and lobelia. There are carpenters’ shops, taxidermists’ studios, acres of shelves and specimen drawers, whole museums within the museum.

Some afternoons he leaves Marie-Laure in the laboratory of Dr. Geffard, an aging mollusk expert whose beard smells permanently of damp wool. Dr. Geffard will stop whatever he is doing and open a bottle of Malbec and tell Marie-Laure in his whispery voice about reefs he visited as a young man: the Seychelles, Belize, Zanzibar. He calls her Laurette; he eats a roasted duck every day at 3 pm, his mind accommodates a seemingly inexhaustible catalog of Latin binomial names.”

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Sussex, 1912. In a churchyard, villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to be seen. Here, where the estuary leads out to the sea, superstitions still hold sway.

Standing alone is the taxidermist’s daughter. At 17, Constantia Gifford lives with her father in a decaying house: it is all that is left of Gifford’s once world-famous museum of taxidermy. The stuffed animals that used to grace every parlour are out of fashion, leaving Gifford a disgraced and bitter man.

The bell begins to toll and all eyes are fixed on the church. No one sees the gloved hand pick up a flint. As the last notes fade into the dark, a woman lies dead.

“Holding hands, they walked forward into a room so full of treasures it was impossible to know where to look first. Birds’ nests suspended from the ceiling, a jumble of glass and feathers and furs, pelts hanging from the rafters. And everywhere, waist-high display cases – eye level for her – with a spine of glass domes along the middle of the room containing stuffed birds: an owl, a robin nesting in a kettle, a duckling with four legs. A fox and her cubs, a two-headed kitten. A mummified hand, charred and blackened and sticky; withered flowers from a plundered grave. Grotesque and chillingly beautiful.”

 

The Museum of Innocence

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The Turkish, Nobel prize-winning, author Orhan Pamuk has been a huge proponent of micro-museums. His article in The New York Times has become a touchstone, an homage to the small, the curious, and the undiscovered. He writes, “when I’m traveling and whenever I set foot in a new city, the first places I rush to see are not these institutions that fill me with a sense of the power of the state and of the history of its people, but those that will allow me to experience the private world and the vision of a passionate individual.”

In May Tim and I traveled to Istanbul to vist Pamuk’s own museum, The Museum of Innocence.IMG_4872Istanbul was so exciting. The ceramic tiles and mosaics, the food (OMG the food!), the art, the history. Everything was just so wonderful.

IMG_4853We spent a fair amount of time eating (favourites: fish sandwiches at the Karaköy waterfront near Galata bridge, and breakfast … just breakfast in general).

IMG_5007We played at being tourists for a couple of days, and visited Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Cisterns. We took a cruise up the Bosphorus, visited the Topkapi Palace, and made friends with numerous street cats and dogs.

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IMG_4967The Museum of Innocence opened in the Çukurcuma neighbourhood of Istanbul in 2012. It is closely intertwined with Pamuk’s novel of the same title. In short, the two exist together, with the museum illustrating the novel, and the novel acting as something of a catalogue for the museum (although there is also a catalogue of the museum itself – a strange liminal document that hints at both the fictional and real aspects of the museum). The novel tells the story of Kemal Basmaci, a wealthy young man, who falls in love with his much younger distant relative Füsun, despite his current engagement to a third character, Sibil, who fades from the story as Kemal’s obsession with Füsun grows. In the novel Kemal is something of a kleptomaniac, and the plot is told through the series of objects that he borrows, steals, removes, and replaces, and then collects in an apartment owned by his mother – the proto museum. The objects tell the story of his doomed love affair with Füsun, and his descent into depression. The Museum of Innocance is a container for these objects, both in the novel and in current-day Istanbul. In fact, the novel came together through real objects, which Pamuk collected from Istanbul antique dealers and flea markets, and then formed into a story of two star-crossed lovers. In short, the objects came first, the novel second, and the museum is the glue holding them together.

Pamuk writes that small museums “convey the ambiance of the lost time from which those objects have come to us.” Obviously this is what he is trying to do with the Museum of Innocence, where objects from 1950s Istanbul are assembled into tableau, both mise-en-scene bringing to life the story in the novel, and cabinets of curiosity illustrating a cross-section of Turkish popular culture.

S0409043S0429045It works like this. In the above photo are a series of objects that Pamuk bought from various sources. All of them are objects that would have been available in Istambul in the 1950s. In the novel, Füsun works at the Sanzelize Butik, where Kemal meets her when he stops to purchase a purse for Sibil. The purse turns out to be fake, and Kemal uses this as an excuse to return to the boutique to see Füsun again. The story unfolds from there, with each of the hundreds of objects corresponding to a moment in the book. All of them can be traced for the close reader (or the museum visitor with plenty of time on their hands).

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At times, it must be admitted, the book drags, partly because there are just so many objects. Tim, who had not read the book, found the same problem in the museum. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense if you don’t know that Kemal’s friend was working on an advertising campaign for Meltem soda (Turkey’s first manufactured soft drink) and was dating the Swedish model famous in the 1950s advertisements. But the wealth of information, the minutiae, is both weakness and strength.

S0389041S0339036The story is also, frankly, a slog, as Kemal moans, and pouts, and mourns, and feels sorry for himself, while the reader or ahem… this reader at least, questions whether a 35 year old should be that interested in an 18 year old in the first place. But I digress. The moaning and pouting gives Kemal plenty of chances to amass his own Museum of Innocence as he gathers the detritus of Füsun’s life.

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At the opening of the museum, viewers find themselves in front of the central display: every cigarette smoked by Füsun (the trace of each can also be found in the book as she puts them to her lips, grinds them out, fiddles with them, and blows smoke in Kemal’s face).

S0269029S0229025At the end of the book, Kemal, heartbroken at the loss of Füsun, travels through Europe visiting small museums, thinking of building his own. Orhan Pamuk enters the book as Kemal’s interviewer and friend, as the scribe of his tale, and also his aid in setting up the museum (which is housed, we are told, in Füsun’s parents’ house, where Kemal would visit Füsun and her family and husband each week for increasingly awkward dinners). The last chapter of the book is almost literally a tourism guide to small museums, and it captures Kemal/Pamuk’s love of the crowded house museums and cluttered spaces of European middle class collectors who left behind their collections for the public to browse.

The Museum of Innocence is really the meta-micromuseum. It is and it is not a perfect example of what such institutions could be in its coy play with reality (a sign on the top floor reads “Between 2000 and 2007, Kemal Basmaci lived in this room, where Orhan Pamuk sat and listened to his story.”)

The top floor includes a bed (apparently where Kemal slept) and an exhibit of the designs of each of the vitrines on the lower floor.

S0719076S0709075So is it successful as a micro-museum? Ultimately, I would have to say no. I wanted it to be something that it couldn’t be, and The Museum of Innocence ran into the same problem that I ran into with my class when we curated the Arthur Nestor exhibition: it’s impossible to create a micro-museum if your goal is to create a micro-museum because the missing ingredient is the assembly of the collection across time. While Pamuk was able to collect the objects over a protracted period, their assembly into the vitrines that also told the novel’s story was too precious, too well-organized in fact, to capture the effect and affect that he wanted (and that he so lauds in other small museums).

The preciousness of the museum was also a result of its location in Çukurcuma, which is the antiques neighbourhood (and probably the location of many of Pamuk’s purchases). Right outside the door of the Museum of Innocence, one finds dozens of stores with the same objects as can be found in the museum, spilling out into the street. The effect is to draw attention to the over-organization of the objects in the vitrines – they seem too constrained when juxtaposed with the unruly installations just a few feet away.

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IMG_5103IMG_5102I wouldn’t want this to seem like I didn’t enjoy the museum. I did, and I thought that it was, in its own way, a very special institution. I just didn’t think that it was able to shake the bonds of traditional display that it so earnestly set out to do. The conceit of using the book to illustrate the museum and vice versa makes it a compelling venue, but this also makes it awkward and occasionally forced. Having said that, I would still put the Museum of Innocence on my highly recommended list, and would strongly advocate for people to visit.

To conclude, my favourite image, from a store just a few meters from the entrance of the Museum of Innocence, which I think captures the idea that there may be, in fact, a museum in the scattered piles of stuff on the steep Istanbul streets:

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