The first thing that strikes you is the silence. It evelops you like a shroud – but it’s fresh, soft, and pure, like a clean white sheet. The interiors of the Museum of Innocence, tucked away in Istanbul’s lively quarter of Beyoğlu, are steeped in silence, which makes you feel as if you were setting foot in a temple. Truth be told, the place does have an aura of sacrality to it, with all visitors walking around in reverence and quietness, as if not to mar the holiess of the objects on display.
The Museum of Innocence is more than a museum. It’s a novel, a film, an institution, an art manifesto – it’s a Gesamtkunstwerk. Conceived by Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, the museum is just one side of the kaleidoscopic tale of Kemal and Füsun’s love story, protagonists of Pamuk’s eponymous novel. Much like the book, the museum is a collection of memories and objects from the daily life of the two lovers, and in particular tokens that reminded Kemal of his beloved after she married someone else.
‘Füsun’s Driving Licence’ – The Museum of Innocence, Chapter 73
As you climb up the stairs of the narrow building, you can “read” the story of the two characters through 83 boxes, to which Pamuk has given the same titles as his novel’s chapters. ‘The Agony of Waiting’, ‘The Consolation of Objects’, ‘The Shadows and Ghosts I Mistook for Füsun’ are thus both fragments of a literary plot and carefully constructed vitrines, which ultimately become pieces of conceptual art in their own right. The material contained in each of the boxes is evocative and intriguing, even to someone who is not familiar with the plot of the book. The objects showcase relatable, universal themes. One of my favourites was ‘Happiness Means Being Close to the One You Love, That’s All’ (Chapter 51).
‘Happiness Means Being Close to the One You Love, That’s All’ – The Museum of Innocence, Chapter 51
On the top floor, it was incredible to see Pamuk’s very own sketches for each vitrine, as well as his hand-written notes from the manuscript. Interestingly, while he drafted many chapters over and over again, he was always adamant about the incipit of the novel, which he came up with before everything else: “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.” (If this is not a hook of a beginning, I don’t know what is.)
While the opening mentions a happy memory, according to Pamuk, both the book and the museum are largely about sadness, and in particular the “melancholy of the period.” The indulgent nostalgia that fills every corner of the museum, much like every comma of the book, is palpable. Indeed, the museum is a journey of loss and grief. Which reminded me of artist Chris Jordan‘s notion of grief as the same as love, “as a felt experience of love for something we are losing, or have lost.” This is what Kemal feels for Füsun, whose loss he tries to alleviate by collecting memories of beautiful moments spent with her.
As well as a fictional museum, the Museum of Innocence can be considereds a museum of ‘Istanbul life in the second half of the 20th century’. Fond of all things retro, I found it fascintating to see what glasses, tooth-brushes, bottles, matches, neckleces et cetera looked like in the ’70s and ’80s. I was especially struck by how everything was so much smaller, tiny, precious and easy to handle back then.
In addition, Pamuk’s will is to plant a seed for change for what museums should be like in the 21st century. As he explains in his ‘Modest Manifesto for Museums’, “the aim of present and future museums must not be to represent the state, but to re-create the world of single human beings.” In a world dominated by divisions and contrasting ideologies, focusing on individual stories (and on the similarities they bear with our own one), seems to be a viable way to go. After the intimate, eye-opening, profound experience that is visiting the Museum of Innocence, one can only wish there will be creatives, writers and artists to follow Pamuk’s example.