ISTANBUL — Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, which opened here last weekend, is an unprecedented project for a writer: the first museum in the world based on an eponymous work of fiction. “The idea came to me almost 15 years ago to set an imaginary story in a real house in Istanbul. I conceived of the book and the museum together,” Pamuk said.
The Turkish author, 59, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, published the best-selling “The Museum of Innocence” in Turkish in 2008 and in English the following year. It has been translated into nearly 60 other languages. However, his original goal of launching a museum at the same time proved too ambitious.
The museum’s opening was delayed in large part because Pamuk has overseen every detail himself, even taking a hiatus from novel-writing for about six months last year. He is the founder, financier, curator and artistic director, although he worked with museum specialists from Turkey and Germany, including architect Gregor Sunder-Plassmann.
“The Museum of Innocence is not an illustration of ‘The Museum of Innocence’ the novel. Neither is the novel an explanation of the museum. They are deeply intertwined because they are both made by me, word by word and object by object,” Pamuk said at a media opening for the museum.
Spanning the years between 1975 and the early 21st century, Pamuk’s epic novel tells the story of Kemal Basmaci, born to a wealthy Istanbul family, whose fleeting affair with Fusun Keskin, a distant relative from a lower class who is 12 years his junior, turns into an obsessive love. Because of his inability to possess Fusun, Kemal begins collecting things she has touched and reminders of her and their relationship, eventually amassing an array of objects over many years. After he loses Fusun forever, Kemal buys the Keskin family’s home with the intention of turning it into a museum devoted to his beloved.
In an unusual twist, the book includes a ticket to the real-life museum, offering readers one free admission (tickets can also be purchased). Though the opening was a few years later than planned, Pamuk’s choice of date was deliberate: April 28, the day in 1975 that Kemal encounters Fusun for the first time as an adult, thus setting the story in motion.
The Museum of Innocence features 83 vitrines of different sizes, each corresponding to a chapter in the book and arranged in the same order. Like modern-day curiosity cabinets, these glass-fronted display cases hold thousands of objects, from personal effects and household items to photos, documents and newspaper clippings. They include wristwatches, cologne bottles, alarm clocks, keys, jewelry, lottery tickets, kitchen utensils, airplane boarding passes, national ID cards and 4,213 of the fictional Fusun’s cigarette stubs, mounted on a wall in chronological order.
Yet the compact, intimate museum is more than just a collection of artifacts thematically related to the novel. The items in the display cases have been carefully arranged (Pamuk, who from age 7 to 20 wanted to be a painter, described “composing them like paintings”) so as to create moods and feelings: A diorama-like depiction of a lavish picnic conjures up an indolent Istanbul afternoon, while a case holding only a pair of slatted, green window shutters and a lantern evokes “Cold and Lonely November Days.” Video installations and subtle sound effects — soft music, the whir of a machine, running water or the twittering of birds — are occasionally used to help set the scene.
Whether visitors find the concept brilliant or bizarre may depend in part on their degree of appreciation for Pamuk’s literary oeuvre, which is known for its postmodern style and liberal use of intertextual references. To those familiar with his work, the section showcasing more than a dozen notebooks with the author’s original manuscript for “The Museum of Innocence” will also be of interest. After dreaming up the joint book and museum project in the late 1990s, Pamuk began collecting objects, which he later wrote into the novel. In 1999, he purchased a four-story townhouse built in 1897 in Cukurcuma, an old Istanbul neighborhood that was in decline. “It felt like the Istanbul of the 1950s and ’60s, the Istanbul of my childhood,” Pamuk said.
Today, although Cukurcuma is fast becoming gentrified — in part by foreign residents who have recognized its historic character — it still has an authentic feel. Antique shops, creeping vines and a run-down hamam, or Turkish bath, line the street on which the museum is located; stray cats prowl and head-scarved old women go about their business.
Set almost entirely in Istanbul, “The Museum of Innocence” offers a window on the Westernized, secular, upper-class subset of society in which the writer grew up, portraying its preoccupations, sexual ethics and moral dilemmas. “The novel gives a picture of high society at that time, of class and gender relations, and family relations,” said Sibel Erol, a professor of Turkish language and literature at New York University and a scholar of Pamuk’s work. The museum works in the same way, she said, capturing a bygone era in the city’s history with a heavy dose of nostalgia.
“Why the museum? I believe Pamuk thinks of novels themselves as museums, where society and cultural norms are preserved,” she said. “The museum gives people the experience of entering the novel.”
But Pamuk says he hopes the museum will stand on its own, as a visual narrative that can be appreciated whether or not visitors have read the book.
Indeed, the bricks-and-mortar Museum of Innocence is as much a social history of Istanbul over the past half-century as it is a paean to the unattainable love depicted in the novel.
The writer — who says his visits to more than a thousand museums since the 1990s shaped his approach — also hopes the Museum of Innocence will fill a gap in the city’s cultural landscape. “This is the first city museum of Istanbul but a very modest city museum. This is a museum of daily life,” he said, adding that, in addition to his persona as a novelist, he sees himself as an anthropologist chronicling and documenting life in his native country.
For Pamuk, writing about the human condition inevitably means writing about his city, because it’s what he knows best: “I came across humanity in Istanbul and, in that sense, I am a writer of Istanbul.”
Larson is a freelance writer.