Alina Lehtinen
Last updated: 4 May, 2012

Nobel Prize winner’s new museum opens a gateway to Istanbul’s past

“The charming red building filled with old pictures, jewelry, Turkish coffee cups, shoes and raki glasses is a journey into everyday life in Istanbul during the last three decades of the 20th century,” writes Alina Lehtinen about Orhan Pamuk’s new museum.

When taking a quick glimpse at this narrow street streaming downhill from Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, it looks quite typical for the neighborhood, called Çukurcuma, with mostly old, colorful apartment buildings on both sides, antique shops, a mosque and a hamam. However, looking more closely you will find something unexpected: a building painted completely in dark red with security cameras and occasional tourist wandering around out front. There may be no sign on the door, but one cannot be mistaken: this is the newly opened Museum of Innocence.

The Museum of Innocence, or Masumiyet Müzesi in Turkish, is Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk’s ambitious, personal project. The museum is based on a novel that goes by the same title published in 2008. It tells a story of Kemal, a wealthy businessman obsessively in love with Füsun, a girl 12 year his junior and of lower class.

“The novel is about love, but it does not treat love as a sweet subject,” Pamuk said at a press conference held in Istanbul last Friday. “It treats love as a human thing that happens to all of us and how we react to it,” he added.

The idea for the book and the museum came at the same time and Pamuk’s original plan was to open the museum on the same day he published the novel. “It turned out to be too ambitious,” he said with a chuckle.

The museum takes the visitor on a journey not just to the past of Çukurcuma neighborhood but also into the mind of the main character Kemal. The museum is organized with every display based on a single chapter of the novel.

“The novel has 83 chapters. The museum also has more or less 83 displays,” Pamuk said. The book starts from 1974 and ends at the break of the Millennium. All the museum artifacts are collected from this time period from cigarette butts to old toothbrushes. Pamuk collected the items from local antiques shops. Some items were donated by readers, family and friends. “The collection is still not complete,” he said.

When he bought the building in 1999 Çukurcuma was a rundown, lower class neighborhood. “It felt like Istanbul of 1950’s or 1960’s; the Istanbul of my childhood”, he claimed.

Çukurcuma and Istanbul have changed enormously since then. Today the neighborhood is popular among expats and middle class Turks, partly due to its location only 10 minutes walk a way from central Taksim square but also because of its charm, cafes and numerous little shops selling antiques, fruit or clothes. The rents have gone up and many working class Turks cannot afford to live in Çukurcuma anymore. Many other neighborhoods around Taksim are currently going through a similar change.

Even though the museum is likely to bring more tourists to the neighborhood, which means more business for the local shopkeepers, everyone is not happy with the change.  Zekiye Kilic, 31, has been living on the same street as the museum for all her life. For many nationalist Turks like her, Orhan Pamuk has brought more shame than fame to Turkey.

“Pamuk hurt Turkish feelings saying 30000 Kurdish were killed by Turks and one million Armenian were killed by Turks,” she said. “I do not think Turks will visit that museum a lot.”

The charming red building filled with old pictures, jewelry, Turkish coffee cups, shoes and raki glasses is a journey into everyday life in Istanbul during the last three decades of the 20th century; a delightful glimpse to Istanbul’s past that one can also experience in some of the local antique stores.