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.Istanbul was so exciting. The ceramic tiles and mosaics, the food (OMG the food!), the art, the history. Everything was just so wonderful.
We spent a fair amount of time eating (favourites: fish sandwiches at the Karaköy waterfront near Galata bridge, and breakfast … just breakfast in general).
We 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.
The 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.
It 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).
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.
The 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.
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).
At 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.
So 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.
I 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: