Rakesh Ramchurn
Last updated: 14 November, 2012

Visiting Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

Turkey has a mixed attitude to its most renowned novelist, Orhan Pamuk. On the one hand he is feted as one of the country’s strongest cultural exports, doing for Istanbul what Naguib Mahfouz did for Cairo and similarly bagging a Nobel Prize win in 2006.

On the other hand, his acknowledgment of Ottoman Turkey’s mass killings of Armenians at the start of the 20th century led to his trial for ‘insulting Turkishness’, and his pro-European stance has led to a campaign against him by Turkey’s right wing press. Abroad, one feels he has become something of a fetish for Western readers, where he is often seen as ‘the voice of Turkey’, a label Pamuk himself would reject.

All of which makes it hard to truly evaluate his latest project, the Museum of Innocence, a new museum in Istanbul’s quiet Çukurcuma district that opened in April. The museum is linked to Pamuk’s novel of the same name, in which Kemal, a wealthy Istanbulli, falls in love with his distant cousin Füsun. In the novel, Kemal’s love turns into an obsession which leads him to collect as many objects connected to Füsun as he can, storing them in a spare apartment which becomes a shrine of their love affair.

The physical museum in Istanbul is Pamuk’s effort to recreate Kemal’s shrine, a project in which the novelist invested the money from his Nobel Prize win and much more besides.

The fact that this is very much a labour of love for the author is evident as soon as you enter the museum. On the ground floor, visitors are confronted with a glass cabinet that spreads across one wall, filled with thousands of lipstick-stained cigarette stubs, representing the 4,213 stubs that Füsun smoked and Kemal dutifully collects in the novel. Over the other three floors of the house, 83 glass cabinets correspond to the 83 chapters of the novel, each named after the chapter it represents and filled with corresponding objects. These include cigarette lighters, earrings, vintage photographs, newspaper clippings and obituary notices, toys, film posters and clothing. A vast collection of salt mills reflects the obsessive nature of the protagonist, while items such as soiled coffee cups, half-eaten melon slices and plates of leftover borek evoke the day-to-day lives of the characters.

However, to say the museum is based on the novel is inaccurate as Pamuk worked on both simultaneously. The author has had a long interest in found objects and how they may tell personal stories, especially in museums which so often focus on the stories of kings and nations rather than on ordinary people. These thoughts came together in the late 90s with the idea of a novel linked to a museum. Pamuk started amassing hundreds of objects from flea markets and from friends, and while he would often search for an object that appeared in his story, often the reverse was true; the objects he collected would steer the storyline of the novel.

The result is a self-indulgent hall of mirrors which blurs reality and fiction. When asked, the ticket attendant at the museum himself wasn’t sure whether or not the house was really once owned by Füsun’s fictional family, and Pamuk has had to deny on many occasions that he is in fact Kemal (and why would he be? The novel already includes a character named Orhan Pamuk, to whom Kemal relates his story). The hall of mirrors gains another layer on the top floor of the building, where one glass cabinet contains pages from the novel’s handwritten manuscript (a display devoted to the novel), and another cabinet contains Pamuk’s sketches and notes showing how he wanted each cabinet to look (a display devoted to the museum).

The Museum of Innocence succeeds best as a collection of mostly authentic objects that depict the material culture of Istanbul’s middle classes during the second half of the 20th century, just as the novel reflects their preoccupations and sexual mores. I would recommend people read the book before visiting the museum, as the exhibition has no accompanying commentary and so the novel provides the only insight into what each display cabinet refers to. And it helps if you are an ardent fan of the author’s works, as you may question the point of it all otherwise.

However, in chapter 15 of the novel, Pamuk makes an allusion to people who may visit the museum in a hundred years’ time, and if the museum still exists, then that is when it will be most valuable as an attraction of merit. People of the future will be able to visit the museum and explore the curious world of middle class life in 20th century Istanbul, a world that will be more remote for them than it is beginning to feel for us now. By then a new author will have been burdened with the label ‘voice of Turkey’, although visitors will have heard of his or her forerunner, Orhan Pamuk. They will be keen to explore the world this eccentric novelist put together in The Museum of Innocence. And I think they will find it all rather quaint.