The museum that was written down
The Nobel Prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk has turned his fictional Museum of Innocence into fact
By Gareth Harris. Features, Issue 216, September 2010
Published online: 16 September 2010
Turkey’s most famous living novelist is holding a pair of dentures in a room packed with ephemera reflecting everyday Turkish life of the past three decades. Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2006 and author of My Name is Red (1998) and Snow (2002), is standing among a sea of objects—sewing machines, clocks, soda-bottle tops, buttons, lottery tickets, china dogs, birdcages, cigarette lighters and false teeth—that will soon go on display in The Museum of Innocence, a four-storey building in the Çukurcuma neighbourhood, central Istanbul. This venue, not just a chamber of curiosities, is the real-life incarnation of the museum painstakingly assembled and detailed in his book The Museum of Innocence (2008). The institution, which is due to open “[before] next year” according to Pamuk, will house 83 wooden boxes related to the book’s 83 chapters. Each box will be filled with items—both ready-made pieces and commissioned works of art—that reflect each chapter, thereby covering a 30-year period in the history of modern Istanbul from 1975 when the novel begins.
The book’s narrator is 30-year-old Kemal Basmaci, the son of one of Istanbul’s wealthiest industrialists and a high-profile, gossip-column staple of Istanbul’s moneyed, westernised bourgeoisie. While shopping for Sibel, his Paris-educated fiancée, he comes across Füsun, a “poor, distant relation”, working in a designer handbag shop. The couple start an illicit affair, meeting regularly for sex in his central Merhamet apartment. But Füsun vanishes and Kemal, distraught and increasingly isolated, confesses his adultery to Sibel, who breaks off the engagement.
He eventually finds the apartment Füsun shares with her parents, the Keskins, in a lower-middle class area north of the Golden Horn inlet. Over 1,500 visits during the next nine years, he removes, from the Keskins’ home, thousands of relics that remind him of Füsun, from hair clips, to earrings, a salt shaker and cigarette stubs, even swiping a china dog perched on top of the family television. The compulsive collector eventually buys the Keskins’ apartment which he turns into The Museum of Innocence, a shrine to his unavailable paramour.
Pamuk’s museum project means that the line between fiction and reality is both highlighted and blurred. On touring the 300 sq. m gallery, visitors will, for instance, eventually arrive at Kemal’s “penthouse” on the last floor, his solitary bed evoking his final days sleeping in the attic of the Keskins’ apartment. A map of the museum location can be found in the front of the novel, while an admission ticket is printed inside. “It was a joy to combine the real with the imaginary,” says the author.
Pamuk has persevered with what became a difficult project to bring to fruition; he originally bought the house—which has been converted by Turkish architects Ihsan Bilgin and Cem Yücel—ten years ago. He is visibly tense on the subject of funding, stating that the project is “all funded by me [through a non-profit foundation]”. The Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture festival website states that it supports the venture but a festival spokeswoman confirmed that this is no longer the case. His assistants, meanwhile, are busy shaping the project. In a studio near to the new museum, four staff are helping to assemble the boxes and fabricate some of the items that will go on show. An assistant is making the ID cards of the factory workers employed by Satsat, the Basmaci family company. In another room, a box is being filled with tombola tickets from the 1970s, mirroring chapter 58 when Kemal plays bingo with the Keskins.
East and west
So is this a fetishisation, reminiscent of Flaubert’s veneration of objects, or simply an ode to collecting? “Museums legitimise our lives through objects, representing kings, communities, nations and institutions. This is a western invention, while the human heart is the same everywhere. The desire to collect is the same everywhere. A collection is a series of gathered objects with an ideology, a story. A rat or a dog can just gather bones and objects,” says Pamuk, whose views on the role, function and history of museums become more strident. “Museums are linked to the process of westernisation…museums, like novels are a western idea. Tokyo’s [national] museum is explicitly linked to the history of Japan, for example. There are strong parallels between the imposition of museums on nations and the rise of national states, both chronologically and culturally,” he says.
He declines, though, to elaborate on a statement given to the Huffington Post website in November last year when he said: “However, in the last 50 years, the non-western world is catching up with museums because it wants to represent its power. Most of the time such museums are about the power of the state. They are crude exercises, like waving a flag.” When pushed, he concludes, however, that “museums and novels are all about representing the upper middle classes,” as evinced in The Museum of Innocence.
As the novel draws to a close, Kemal’s priority is to visit hundreds of off-the-beaten-track museums, unsung institutional heroes such as New York’s Glove Museum or the Musée de Temps in Besançon, a clock museum in eastern France, with a special mention for Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and its “gorgeously cluttered, crowded rooms”. “I like small, neglected museums. I like their eclecticism, the idea that you produce something uncontrollable in them. The book honours museums that nobody goes to,” says Pamuk.
Kemal’s eulogy to the smaller museum is nonetheless offset by his criticism of blockbusting institutions in the west, caustically noting that: “I’m afraid that this museum craze in the west has inspired the uncultured and insecure rich of this country [Turkey] to establish ersatz museums of modern art with adjoining restaurants. This despite the fact that we have no culture, no taste, and no talent in the art of painting…When the Sunday crowds pour through museums, the collected objects cry.”
So do Kemal’s sentiments perhaps mirror the author’s feelings on European and US institutions? When pushed on how closely he agrees with his protagonist, Pamuk is keen to distance himself from Kemal’s stance, insisting that: “I like those places [western museums], I was cracking a joke in the novel. I’m not being critical.” Identification with the protagonist is batted away by stating that his writing is done in a “playful mode. The reader is never sure if these are my ideas.”
Like Kemal who declares in his attack on western museums that “no more than 50 at a time should be admitted to the Museum of Innocence!”, Pamuk will also enforce a 50-visitor limit on the venue. There will be no wall captions, only chapter headings inscribed on plaques while the book “will be the curator”, stresses the author. The space itself will also be “the opposite of a white cube”, says one of Pamuk’s assistants, with shutters blocking out the light to create an immersive, intimate environment, prompting closer inspection of the mementoes that wind around the walls.
Personal and political
What of the complementary role, history and function of museums, seen by Kemal as “repositories of those things from which western civilisation derives its wealth of knowledge, allowing it to rule the world”? Is cultural diplomacy a key weapon in Turkey’s ongoing quest to be a member of the European Union? Or as one of Pamuk’s characters put it in Snow: “Can the west endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?”
Pamuk won’t be pinned down on whether the planned museum is inherently political, only saying: “We don’t want the museum to be political. There will be no deliberate politics.”
This evasion is understandable in light of the international controversy ignited by the author in 2005 when he commented, in a Swiss publication, on the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces between 1915 and 1917, along with the Kurdish soldiers who have died since 1984 in the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish separatists. Pamuk, who was put on trial for “publicly denigrating Turkish identity”, reportedly said: “30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these areas, and nobody dares to speak about it.” The charges were dropped in January 2006 by the Turkish Justice Ministry, but a bodyguard present on site is a reminder of the controversy ignited by the comments and their aftermath.
The Museum of Innocence is a political museum, however, simply by the nature of its contents, which reflect Turkey’s turbulent post-war history, including its violent military coup on 12 September 1980 when the military, led by General Kenan Evren, seized power. More than 60,000 people suspected of illegal political activities were arrested between September 1980 and February 1983.
A key object in the new museum linked to the upheaval is a quince grater surreptitiously removed from the Keskins’ flat by Kemal four months after the September insurgency. He is forced to hand over the kitchen item to soldiers who stop his driver 15 minutes before a martial law curfew is enforced. Pamuk points out that the grater stands as a symbol of the military activity. Crucially, Kemal emphasises in the book’s dénouement that “this is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm of Istanbul.”
The vast expanse of the city can be seen from Pamuk’s office, with the Bosphorus and Istanbul’s old town laid out before him. Contemplating the view, he unexpectedly exclaims: “My mistake was that things got too big. I should have made it [the museum] smaller economically and in its artistic aspirations.” But then he becomes more excited than ever, sharing recent news that, for him, exemplifies why the museum is essential. “A friend of mine told me that a real estate agent had said that if you live in this area, you’ll be close to Füsun’s objects!” he says, laughing.
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