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.

The Museum of Innocence, recently opened in Istanbul by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, takes its name from Pamuk’s 2008 novel.

Nobel laureate and Turkey’s most famous living author Orhan Pamuk recently opened his Museum of Innocence in Istanbul's Çukurcuma neighborhood. Housed in a wine-red, four-story building constructed in 1897, the museum takes its name from Mr. Pamuk’s 2008 novel of the same name and is a tribute to the "profane magic" of Turkish everydayness, featuring 83 display cases (one for each chapter of the book) filled with ordinary objects drawn from the novel.

The first display greeting the visitor to the museum is the “cigarette wall,” which showcases 4,213 cigarettes smoked by Füsun, one of the characters in Pamuk’s novel. The exhibit is accompanied by a film reel, shot by Pamuk himself, showing a woman's hand movements as she smokes and taps her cigarette, and beneath each cigarette stub is a handwritten note about the day in which it was stolen; "Earthquake," reads one such inscription.

Writing in the Guardian, Pamuk described the perspective visitors should adopt when viewing the objects on display: “Visitors to my Museum of Innocence must compel themselves … to view all objects displayed therein – the buttons, toys, Füsun’s combs, tickets and old photographs – not as real things in the present moment, but as my memories." Pamuk has also emphasized that not all the display panels are complete: The New York Times quotes the author saying, "I will add a new episode to the story, new objects, new ideas, new little exhibitions by other artists."

Set in the 1970s, "The Museum of Innocence" tells the story of Kemal Basmaci, a prosperous Turkish businessman, and his love affair with a shopgirl of lower class (who happens to be a distant cousin) named Füsun Keskin. After ending the affair, Kemal experiences deep remorse and tries unsuccessfully to woo Füsun back. The lovelorn protagonist becomes increasingly estranged from society and his friends, who write him off as quixotic. Thus begins the process of sublimated repossession. In a period of 2,864 days, Kemal obsessively collects objects (some are pilfered) that remind him of his beloved. Thousands of cigarette stubs bearing the trace of Füsun’s lip rouge, among other objects, are set aside in Kemal’s room, which he intends to refurbish into a “museum of innocence.” ("Happiness," the last chapter in "The Museum of Innocence," includes one single admission ticket to the museum, which readers can redeem.)

Some objects in the physical Museum of Innocence were amassed from flea markets, antique shops, and private collections, but many, including a toothbrush collection, belonged to the author himself. Pamuk said, “The Museum of Innocence – just like the novel – is about the line between fiction and reality. The whole art of a novel is about readers asking themselves did the author really live this or did he imagine this? More or less, I did the same thing with the museum.”

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.”

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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