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Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence opens in Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence, based on his 2008 novel, houses thousands of objects that evoke the atmosphere of 1970s Turkey and enshrine ordinary life.

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According to Pamuk, the idea for his museum and his 2008 novel “evolved together.” Pelin Kivrak, Pamuk’s assistant at the museum, told me, “Most of the objects [in the museum] were collected by Orhan himself when he was writing the book. He wrote the novel by looking at those objects and imagining stories about them. He was extremely meticulous as he created compositions out of these single objects in the vitrines. He drew detailed outlines of each and every vitrine and realized his ideal compositions by trial and error. It took him so much time to do that.”

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Ms. Kivrak identified the time spiral embedded in the museum’s floor as one of the most intriguing creations on display. Visible from every floor of the museum, the spiral is studded with large golden dots, which “represent the happy moments in Time.” One wall carries these words by Kemal:

“My life has taught me that remembering Time – that line connecting all the moments that Aristotle called the present – is for most of us rather painful.

However, if we can learn to stop thinking of life as a line corresponding to Aristotle’s Time, treasuring our time instead for its deepest moments, then lingering eight years at our beloved’s dinner table no longer seems strange and laughable. Instead, this courtship signifies 1,593 happy nights by Füsun’s side.

It was to preserve these happy moments for posterity that I collected this multitude of objects large and small that once felt Füsun’s touch, dating each one to hold it in my memory.”

That Pamuk's Wunderkammer, a project nearly 15 years in the making, has finally been realized represents a significant historic achievement. Erdağ Göknar, Professor of Turkish studies at Duke University and author of the forthcoming "Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy," wrote in an email to me, “Pamuk has accomplished a first by writing a novel of objects and by producing a museum that is a novel. This is an achievement that blurs the boundary between object and text in a way that redefines the novel genre. Pamuk has again written Istanbul into world literature.”

The painstaking process of bringing a museum to fruition might have been enough work for anyone. Not so for Pamuk. The author has written a book about the museum, entitled "The Innocence of Objects," which will be published by Abrams Books in October, 2012. According to the book's press release, it catalogs the museum's various exhibitions and also offers insight into “the psychology of the collector, the proper role of the museum, the uses of photography in modernizing societies, and of course the customs and traditions of [Pamuk’s] beloved city. The book’s imagery is equally evocative, ranging from pop ephemera that has become ‘collectible,’ to Pamuk’s superb collection of haunting photographs and movie stills of old Istanbul."

To end on a reflective note, we include an excerpt from Pamuk's "Modest Manifesto for Museums" (part of "Innocence of Objects") in which he contends that museums, instead of advancing narratives of nations, should move to reconstruct the world of individual human beings: "[Large national museums] present the history of the nation – history, in a word – as being far more important than the histories of individuals. This is unfortunate because ... everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane, and much more joyful."

Rhoda Feng is a Monitor contributor.

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