Turkey’s most creative, daring idea

The Museum of Innocence – Europe’s Museum of the Year – is a museum, based on a novel, based on a museum, where the objects of the protagonist’s obsession come to life.

The museum was not real. The objects here did not belong to the people that the inscriptions said they did; the house did not have the history that was claimed for it; even the audio tour, asserting that the curator worked with an imaginary character, was threaded with fiction.

At least, I had thought so. But now, as I stood in the museum’s penthouse – looking at the modest bed where the novel’s protagonist, Kemal, is said to have first slept with Füsun, the object of his obsession; where an inscription says that Kemal passed away here on 12 April 2007; and where displayed pages of the author’s notes are described as notes from the interviews he did with Kemal – I wasn’t so sure. Perhaps it wasn’t a novel at all. Perhaps there had been a real Kemal. Perhaps I’d missed something.

The Museum of Innocence may be the most creatively daring project of Turkey’s most daring living author. Awarded the title of European Museum of the Year in May 2014, the Museum of Innocence is a museum, based on a novel, based on a museum. All share the same name. And all seep with the life and culture of Istanbul in the second half of the 20th Century.

In the mid-1990s, even before Orhan Pamuk, the concept’s creator, author and curator, had received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novels, including 1998’s My Name Is Red and 2002’s Snow, he was embarking on a secret project. He was gathering objects, the sorts of everyday flotsam and jetsam that marked Istanbul in the second half of the 20th Century: salt shakers, old photographs, a quince grater. But he was assembling more than a collection. “I wanted to collect and exhibit the ‘real’ objects of a fictional story in a museum and to write a novel based on those objects, Pamuk writes in The Innocence of Objects, the museum’s guide. “At the time, I did not know what sort of place the museum would be, and neither did I know the shape the novel would take. But I had the feeling that focusing on objects and telling a story through them would make my protagonists different from those in Western novels – more real, more quintessentially of Istanbul.”

If my confusion in the museum’s penthouse was any indication, Pamuk had succeeded.

Pamuk started collecting his objects in earnest the mid-1990s. In 2002, while still collecting, he began to work on a novel linking those objects to fictional protagonists. At the same time, he dreamed of setting up a museum to showcase the same objects, even though, at first, he admitted it sounded as if he had “lost the plot”: “At first, whenever anyone asked what I was going to do with the stuff that I was accumulating, I was unable to answer them. ‘I will build a museum, and its catalogue will be a novel’ seemed too ambitious a response,” he writes. “Its strangeness, its oddity, and the difficulty of realising it scared me.”

But, of course, he did realise his goal. Published in 2008, The Museum of Innocence was Pamuk’s first novel after receiving the Nobel Prize in 2006. A tragic tale of class and gender inequality, the novel depicts the fixation of the protagonist, Kemal, on a young woman named Füsun – an obsession that drives him to collect every possible object that she associates with. And the museum itself opened to the public four years later, in 2012.

In a neat trick played at the end of the novel, Kemal uses those objects to form the nucleus of a real-life museum, and hires an old acquaintance, the writer Orhan Pamuk, to write his story. And, in an even neater trick – and the reason, beyond creative sleight-of-hand, that the museum has received such recognition by the academic community – the objects of Füsun and Kemal provide a rarely seen slice-of-life look at 20th-century Turkey.

As I sought out the museum, a blood-red, Ottoman-style wooden house on a back street in the hilly Beyoğlu neighbourhood of Çukurcuma, I noted ruefully that I perfectly fit the novel’s description of the museum’s eventual visitors: “the single women who end up in the museum having lost their way in the street”. When I finally arrived, I marvelled for a moment. I knew the house wasn’t really the house of Füsun’s family, as the book said it was. But it looked just as I’d imagined.

At the ticket window, I slid my well-thumbed novel across to the woman, open to the page where, talking about the future museum, Kemal decided that the ticket should be printed within the book itself. She smiled and stamped the page in the shape of a butterfly: a nod to both the first chapter of the novel, in which Füsun loses a butterfly-shaped earring, and to the first object in the collection.

Focussing on ordinary objects, of course, was Pamuk’s aim all along. His “modest manifesto for museums”, which greets visitors at the entrance, explains that most modern museums are large and state-sponsored, displaying the fruits of grand (often elite) achievements. “These institutions, now national symbols, present the story of the nation – history, in a word – as being far more important than the stories of individuals,” he writes. “We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane, and much more joyful.” Museums, he says, should be more like novels. And “the future of museums is inside our own homes.”

One of the most arresting display cases, for example, was of trash. In particular, cigarette butts – 4,213 in total – spreading across an illuminated, wall-sized panel. All were smoked, both the novel and museum said, by Füsun. Each had dates and annotations written by Kemal detailing what Füsun had done or said to Kemal that day. An oddly mesmerising video ran nearby that showed the elegant hand of a woman as she smoked. Anthropologists agree, Pamuk said through the audio tour, that in Istanbul, where so many people smoke, “the linked actions of hiding and lighting a cigarette, flicking the ash off its end and stubbing it out all form a particular sign language of vast significance.”

After all, focusing on individuals and domestic life, rather than elites, is an idea already pervasive in academia. Applying it to museums is both a smart and natural next step. Still, I found it odd that a museum so focused on everyday individuals – the kind often ignored by history – never gave voice to the most voiceless character or group in the whole novel: women like Füsun. There’s a clear nostalgia that both Kemal and Pamuk have for the old Istanbul that’s conveyed in these objects – black-and-white images of old ships on the Bosphorus, photographs of footballers that used to come with packs of chewing gum, bottles of the briefly-popular Turkish soft drink Meltem. But if the museum were to have been put together not by Kemal but by, let’s say, Füsun, whose life is ruined by that same old Istanbul and its rules, that nostalgia would probably look quite different.

Still, even as art alone, the displays were impressive. And they were art: each of the cases held a striking blend of objects chosen for both historical merit and emotional resonance, creating a surrealist twist. One, for example, for the chapter called “Silence”, displayed Füsun’s white panties, socks and sneakers, all back-dropped by an image of kissing seagulls from a 17th-century manuscript; Kemal associated kissing with “visions of a mother seagull putting food into her impatient chicks’ open beaks” as well as “of a seagull gently holding a fig in its beak,” Pamuk writes. Another showed an image of an oil fire on the Bosphorus, with a glass of çay (black Turkish tea) and simit (a sesame-encrusted bread ring) – what Kemal said he was eating while he watched the fire – suspended in front of it.

That blending, of course, is exactly the idea. Nothing is more important than anything else. Every detail and memory matters. And the fictional is authentic; the authentic, fictional.

As I left, I hesitated at the ticket desk. “I just have to ask…” I said. “There was no real Kemal, was there?”

The woman smiled at me, just as she had when she’d stamped my ticket. “If you think there was a real Kemal,” she said, “then there was.”