Sunday, September 28, 2014

What Do You Do When You Disagree with a Speaker?


As anyone who knows me personally knows, I'm generally not reluctant to speak out in disagreement. But this post is about a time recently when I didn't, and I continue to regret it.  The recent Museums and Politics conference was held at a very challenging time for many people and nations.  The Russian government's actions in Ukraine, including both Crimea and the Donbass,  have dismayed many, including me. Thousands have lost their lives in Eastern Ukraine in the continuing conflict.  The governments of the United States and Germany (along with the European Union), the other conference co-sponsors, have imposed sanctions on Russia; but most of those who came to the conference came with the intention of listening and learning.  It was a hard choice for me to come because ICOM Ukraine requested a boycott,  but I did, with the same motivation--to listen and learn.  In general, speakers and audience members were respectful, even of viewpoints that differed greatly from our own. For a full conference roundup, check out our conference blog.

However, one speaker embarked on a diatribe that I did not respond to and I should have; I wished I had had the courage in the moment to step forward with questions and clarifications.  So I will respond here--that's the advantage of having my own blog, I suppose.  Sergey Pushkarev, director of the Association of Preserves and Museums in Crimea gave a talk so filled with hate and vitriol that I was astounded.  I'm relying here on my own notes from the simultaneous English translation and a colleague's notes from the German version.  His accepted session proposal was to be about tourism in Crimea, a topic of critical importance to museums there.  His topic published in the schedule in Yekaterinburg was about the state of Crimean museums now: also potentially a topic of interest. However, his talk could be be described as a tirade against the current Ukrainian government and its people.

He shouted his way through a talk that included the highly debatable point that, although fifty percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia, he personally was sure that 100% of people were in favor of it--and even more directly, that 90% of museum staff in Crimea are pro-Russian. As a corrective example, I'll just point to the recent search and closure of the Meijlis, the Crimean Tatar Parliament, in Simferopol. It's crystal clear that at least 12% of Crimea, the Crimean Tatar population, did not support the takeover in any way.  And also very clear that it's dangerous in Crimea these days to support Ukraine.

He then accused the Ukrainian government of the misuse of funds for museums, but neglected to mention that this kind of corruption was exactly what led to Maidan and the ouster of President Yanukovych.  He stated that Maidan was nothing more than an effort by the West to sever the ties of the Slavonic people:  something I know that would be a surprise to those of you who stood on Maidan. He did state, correctly, that museums in Ukraine supported the anti-Russian campaign, although I expect those museums would describe it as a campaign for dignity, human rights, and a just society rather than an anti-Russian campaign.

Not surprisingly, he addressed the issue of Crimean artifacts on loan to a museum in Amsterdam, having said a letter was sent requesting their return.  As I understand it, some of those objects have already been returned to Ukraine, as they were, and continue to be, state property.  Negotiations for the remaining artifacts are ongoing.  He also assured the audience that no objects would be removed from Crimea to Russia.

He accused Blue Shield Ukraine of being active on Maidan, but not caring for what was happening to museums in eastern Ukraine, particularly mentioning the local history museum in Donetsk.  I've actually been to that museum (and I bet he hasn't).  Its destruction is heart-breaking, particularly since it's been very hard to get information and clear documentation because the area surrounding the museum is still controlled by separatists.  However, Ukrainian museums and the Ministry of Culture are supporting their colleagues and the museum there in whatever possible ways given the situation and the extremely limited resources of Ukraine's current government.  Museums in Kyiv have offered working space for those colleagues who have left the Donbass and Kyiv museums are helping to raise funds for the eventual repair of those museums damaged by the conflict.  I believe the Ministry has begun holding some disaster preparedness sessions and Blue Shield is making significant attempts to learn about the state of all endangered museums and cultural sites in Ukraine.

He ran over time, had to be interrupted by the moderator, and so there was no time for questions. As I wrote at the beginning of the post,  I wish now I had not made the decision to be a good guest, but rather that I had stepped forward with questions, despite the press of time.  To Mr. Pushkarev,  I hope next time you present facts rather than polemics.   To my Ukrainian colleagues and friends, my apologies, my support,  and the small amends of this post.

Image:  Chufut Kale, from a visit to Crimea in 2011.

Monday, September 22, 2014

When is Your Audience Ready for the Tough Stuff?


When is your audience or community ready to discuss difficult, hard topics?  At the Museums and Politics conference in St. Petersburg, a number of presenters I heard talked about topics such as the German interpretation of concentration camps, the ways Belgian museums are re-interpreting the legacy of colonialism in Africa; and American museum presentation of prisons and Native American identity. Absent though, was almost any discussion of the effects of Stalin and the Soviet past except for in one presentation by a Russian colleague who stated that the Russian people "were not ready" to address that very difficult legacy.  When asked by an audience member how Russian museums knew that, she cited audience surveys.  It is a challenging past; it is a recent past; and it is a past with a clear connection to the present and future.  

But I did find time, in St. Petersburg and Moscow, to visit three museums that are beginning that discussion; that are not afraid of opening up tough topics for conversations.  They are undertaking incredibly important work, particularly given that one such human rights museum, the Gulag Museum at Perm 36 has been closed for what seem to be political reasons.


The State Museum of Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg begins with a historical perspective, looked back at the abolishment of serfdom, the Tsar's abdication, and the ascension of Lenin, followed by Stalin. There's no question that great men loom large in this presentation, as they once did in statues found all over the Soviet Union.  I greatly appreciated the incredible objects (for instance the film canister in which Solzhynitzin's writings were smuggled out)  and well-written labels in English. Notebooks in each room provided full English documentation of everything you were seeing.  Sometimes when I visit museums in this part of the world, I feel the stories were purposely crafted to be about not a single ordinary person, but rather just this great collective.   The museum looked at not just the difficult past, but also a past where people felt united in a single purpose, so I suspect there's some nostalgia for many visitors.

One small label made me understand that collective force a bit more. In the section on the end of the Great Patriotic War and the Victory Parade in Red Square, filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko noticed that the dead barely received a mention, "It was if thirty or even forty million had vanished into the thin air...the people in the square did not kneel nor gasped for their sufferings or their spilt blood."  

There was an interesting emphasis on providing the tools for visitors to deconstruct socialist meanings.  Several large Socialist Realist paintings were hung in the center courtyard and extensive labels, "Let's Examine the Painting Together" shared both the meanings of the paintings; what symbols are embedded in those views of happy workers; and what the reality of farming actually was.   I wanted more opportunities for visitor voices and feedback, but the museum does stand at a place where the narrative of the Soviet past becomes more complex and nuanced.


In Moscow, the Museum of the House on the Embankment is just a tiny two rooms in a huge apartment complex, the place known as the House on the Embankment, built by Stalin to house top level Soviet elite in the 1930s and 1940s.  But many of those elite paid the same price as other Soviet citizens.  As Stalin turned on the people close to him, many of those who lived here, those who were "original revolutionaries," who were writers, high government officials, scientists, and even the architect of the building himself, were purged by Stalin, taken away, and most often killed.  The museum contains room like settings of original objects in first floor apartment that was once a caretaker's, I believe.  The space is evocative, but it was a group of notebooks on the table that drew our attention.  We pulled out one that said Women; and in it were simple photocopies and biographies of women who lived in this house.  Page after page of incredibly talented women, some who lived on to their '90s;  but far too many of whom had no death date, as they had been taken away, and no one ever knew the truth of what happened.  It's a place filled with great irony as these were people who believed passionately, deeply in what they were doing; but then it came home to them.  In a museum-sense, was was really interesting here was that this was no computer interactive, no fancy database.  It was a notebook, a table and chairs that we could it in.  That alone kept the two of us there for over an hour.  True stories, of real people, always matter.


And finally, the Gulag State History Museum in Moscow.  You enter, somewhat grimly, through a re-created camp corridor--but then, in a bit of surprise, you're not greeted in any of the exhibition halls or at the front desk by staff who try their best to ignore you, but rather, as you enter a gallery you're welcomed, and invited to share any questions you may have.   The permanent exhibit includes, once again, powerful individual objects and individual stories, that together create a sense, even if it's really beyond our own understanding,  of what the terror of being sent off to the camps must have been like.   But very interestingly, they also delved deeper into not just the camps, but other repressions.  A large temporary exhibit looked at the repression of Buddhism.  My favorite element in that was a propaganda film, where on one head set you could listen to what an ethnographer might say about what was seen; and on the other, what the propaganda would have been.   A set of incredibly beautiful portraits of Ingush elders told yet another unknown story to me, about their forced deportation, just as the Crimean Tatars were deported.


Again, it's the interactive of conversation that matters most. While I viewed the permanent exhibit, my friend Irina who lives in Moscow had a long chat with the guard in the room, about how she came to see the museum, about how she began to volunteer, and just the barest hint of her own personal story.  Irina vowed to return, to hear more.

I was moved by all three of these museums, and I wondered each time about the reluctance of museums in Russia to engage in such dialogue.  Such questioning is not particularly welcomed at this moment in Russia--but that does not mean it's not happening, in museums and in people's own minds.  So I'll end with two comments from the final day of the conference in St. Petersburg.  A Serbian participant said,
“Us Slavic people have problems facing our past, but we have to face it, address it in our museums. The ideologically shaped past hurts a lot, but I take with me to Serbia, that we should have memory places and we should face the hard facts. Museum play a big role in that, and I commend Germany for its work in that.”
And a Russian conference-goer passionately said, “The museum is a place for communication and to treat national trauma. And we must do that,” while one other participant said, “Making a difference needs courage! To see that we all share the same values gives us the strength to be courageous.”

I'll long remember these courageous museums and hope deeply that other Russian museums--that all history museums everywhere-- begin to join them helping community members in a deeper understanding of the past.  The longer you wait, the harder it becomes.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Non-Reflective Update: Russia



I had the best of intentions to blog regularly about my trip to this part of the world, but the long intense days have gotten the better of me so far. I also had blogging duties over at the Museums, Politics and Power blog, so please check out there for tri-lingual reporting on that tri-national conference in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.   And I will catch up on my own blogging here—in Russia I saw contemporary art in the Hermitage; a guide play the Tsar’s piano in Yekaterinburg and a few places in Moscow who begin to consider the hard legacy of the Soviet past.  My head is full of thoughts, ideas and reflections that hopefully, will make it here in some cohorent fashion.  But until then, just a few photos from the past ten days or so.  Today, I'm in Riga, Latvia, with more museums on my agenda; and then on to Ukraine on Sunday.  












Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Bags are (almost) Packed


On September 6th, I head out for five weeks away from home, in all kinds of surprising locations, places where I expect to learn, to be challenged by new situations, to connect with old friends, to make new ones; and much, much more.  First I head to St. Petersburg and Yekaterinberg, Russia, where I'll be both presenting and doing social media for the event.  So be sure to check out the project blog, and follow me on Twitter (or the hashtag #museumspolitics) and Instagram to get the latest from conference sessions, behind the scenes tours of the Hermitage, the contemporary art exhibit Manifesta; and what I hope are conversations that really dig deep, allowing us to consider the conference theme, Museums and Politics, in the light of current events in the region. What are our responsibilities as cultural professionals and how can we, working together, take care of our cultural heritage and engage in important dialogue?

Then a few free days that, of course, include museum-going.  My friend Irina in Moscow tells me there are so many museums we can squeeze in.  Will I love the Moscow Bulgakov Museum as much as I love the Kyiv one? I've heard great things about programs and exhibits at the Tretyakov Gallery--that's on my list--and what about those new emerging museums like the Moscow Design Museum.   From Moscow, I'll head to Riga, Latvia, a European Capital of Culture this year with what look like some amazing museums. The newly opened KGB building and much more are on my list, along with a chance to appreciate one of the world's great concentrations of Art Nouveau architecture.

I wind up my visit to the region with several weeks in Ukraine. As Uncataloged readers know, this is a place very dear to me, with important friends and colleagues.  Together with several colleagues, I'll be presenting workshops on incorporating visitor voices into exhibit development so although I'll be based in Kyiv, we'll be doing lots of traveling around the country.  I'll also be learning about the Museum of Maidan project and as always, sharing perspectives on both professional and personal issues and shoehorning a couple additional presentations. The last year has been an extremely challenging one for Ukraine, to say the least, and my museum colleagues are juggling their work; their commitment to national change; and their concerns for family, friends and fellow museums.

Are you in any of these places?  As always, I'd love the chance to sit down over a cup of coffee and learn about your work.  Be in touch!

Monday, August 25, 2014

What Fundraising Letter Made Me Mad?

One of my all-time most-read posts is 2010's Are County Historical Societies Dinosaurs? in which I took on what I saw as the increasing irrelevance of many historical societies. I've learned that it's assigned in museum studies and public history courses and shows up in some unexpected places.  I always like to think that we're moving forward. But today, forwarded from a colleague, came a historical society's fundraising letter that reminded me how little has changed over the last four years. Here's the letter in its entirety with only the name changed: 
Dear Members and Friends: 
As you may know, building a healthy endowment is of critical importance for the long term health of any non-profit organization, including the ABC Historical Society. 
Once again we are asking your help in boosting our endowment fund.  In these times of shrinking financial support from other sectors we are counting on the generosity of our members and friends to take up the challenge and provide the ABC Historical Society with a solid foundation on which to build for the future.  Once again we have been issued a challenge grant in that all money raised by us will be matched one for one.  What that means is that every dollar donated will effectively be doubled! 
All money raised will be deposited into our endowment account at the local bank.  No donation is too small and of course, no donation can ever be too large!  Thank you for your support!
Honestly, this letter made me more annoyed, angry and discouraged than anything I've read in a long time.  Why?  There is not one, not a single one, mention of anything this organization does.  As far as the letter reads, the primary mission of the organization is building an endowment.   It's pretty easy to moan and groan about how small organizations can't get grants, that they do great, important work, but in fact, this is far from the only organization who can't even figure out for themselves why they matter much less make the case to their community.  

A long time ago I was in a workshop taught by management consultant Dorothy Chen-Courtin who made us ask "so what?" at least seven times to get to an meaningful mission statement.   Do you collect?  So what?  Do you preserve those collections?  So what?  Keep asking til you find real meaning and purpose.  I see small organizations everywhere doing great work, with few resources.  Those are places that deserve our support as a field and our individual contributions.  Lazy organizations--because that's what I'll call this one--seem hardly to deserve anything.  That's a sad fact, because our communities, large and small, rural and urban, deserve history organizations that can be so much more.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seeing IS Believing: What Prototyping Can Do

Are you thinking that the pace of change at your institution is glacial?  If you work at a historic house, are you crippled by the fact that your interpreters, volunteer or paid, seem to resist any change in how they share ideas and information with visitors?  Has somebody at your institution said, "Visitors will never do that!" whatever that is?    Have you been thinking and planning, but afraid to take the step of actually making change in your historic house?

I've written several times about my ongoing work with the Harriet Beecher Stowe House on re-interpretation.  We've talked with visitors, talked with ourselves, talked with a great group of scholars and community leaders, we explored surrendering the chronology and learned a great deal along the way. But still, our ideas remained untested. We've used a version of design thinking to help shape our work and we had prototyped internally, but it was time to take the plunge and actually test out our ideas, in the historic spaces, with real live visitors. Here's how it went.

We decided to rethink four spaces in the house.  Two spaces in particular were both exciting and scary--the front parlor and the kitchen.  In our conversations with visitors, they had told us they really wanted to be able to sit in the house.  So that's what we did in both those spaces.  Stowe House is lucky to have a collections manager, Beth Burgess, who cares deeply for the collection and cares deeply about engaging audiences.  She's been a valued part of the team since the word go, and her willingness to move and remove objects in the service of interpretation has been so valuable.  So the period kitchen table was replaced with a reproduction, covered in brown paper.  Several chairs in the front parlor and the center table were relocated and replaced with folding chairs with fabric covers and a simple table on which there were reproductions of news articles and anti-slavery materials.  Total cost of all this?  Zero dollars.  Our overall goal was to more closely align the historic house experience with the Stowe Center's mission which includes:  promotes vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspires commitment to social justice and positive change.  

The interpretive staff approached this with some pretty serious trepidation.  The education staff (big shout-outs to Shannon Burke and Brian Cofrancesco, my amazing partners in this entire process) and I decided that to start, one interpreter would lead the tour, except in the prototyping spaces, where I'd take the lead.  I'm very far from a Stowe expert, but I like a challenge, and I'm confident of my ability to encourage discussion.

What happened?  Over the next two days all of us were inspired and moved in so many unexpected ways.  It started with our very first group,  atypical for Stowe House, where most visitors, are like most historic house visitors, are white, female and over 65.  This group, just walk-in visitors, was a small group of African American and Latino local middle school students who give tours at a local cemetery as a summer job. When we got to the parlor, and sat down, I asked everyone to take a document to look at, and asked for a volunteer to read out loud.  One student read runaway slave ads and hesitated a bit, and then continued. Their adult group leader gently asked, "what were you thinking when you stopped reading?"  He looked up and said, "The ad said the slave was 5'11.  I'm 5'11.  It could have been me."   That stopped us in our tracks.  Just the act of reading out loud made something real and personal. We've found that reading aloud also worked for other types of visitors in different kinds of connecting ways--from parenthood to where you're from.
In the kitchen at the end of the tour, we'd designed the experience so that participants would have an informal chance to reflect on Stowe's commitment to social justice and connect it to the change they'd like to make in the world.  Sitting around a table covered in brown paper, encouraged to write and talk at the same time, meant that there was space for both.  Talkers talked, writers wrote, drawers drew,  thinkers thought and the table filled with thoughtful comments about the difference we can make in the world.

In just our brief experience, we discovered some really important things.

First, what we learned about the internal workings.  Although Shannon, Brian and I had these ideas in our heads, we really needed to show the interpretive staff the ideas in action.  And once we did, what had been some pretty substantial hesitation melted away.  Visitors loved the idea of participating in what seems like a behind-the-scenes process and that made interpreters feel comfortable with the experimentation.  The fear of change is powerful, and the simple prototyping was something that everyone could experiment with (it's an experiment!).  Seeing is believing.  And from our willingness to risk failure (that first tour easily could have gone not so well) and our willingness to learn from every visitor and every interpreter's experience, it's now become something that all of us are invested in. Wrote one staff member after giving her first prototype tour:
I was nervous at first, but as I talked, and as they participated I began to feel really excited and completely invigorated by what was happening.  My experience in giving the tour made me feel incredibly excited about what I was doing, and more importantly excited about giving a tour.   
We found a way to make everyone a part of the process.  The prototype tours always include an observer/notetaker and a simple form to collect information and observations from both staff and visitors about what works, what doesn't, and what we can continue to tweak.

And what did we learn about visitors?  They love experimentation.  They love dialog.  They love being fully in historic spaces. Stowe staff have been getting emails from visitors talking about their experiences (how often does that happen to you?)  Here's what one visitor wrote:
[The guide] advised us of some experimental procedures we would be involved in that were being tried out as part of the tour. The discussion group catalyzed by viewing media reproductions from the slave era was a terrific idea. After the normal hesitation to speak, our group was really starting to engage but had to break off in order to maintain schedule. My thought was, Is there some way to accommodate an extended discussion during or perhaps at the end of the tour? All in all a great experience.
And a big lesson?  Visitors are up for it all if it's framed and presented in ways that encourage--but not require--participation.  One of the documents we used in the front parlor were the words to the Abolitionist's Song, sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.  As we were wrapping up before my departure, we discussed the ongoing prototyping process, I said, "I bet you some group actually sings this in the tour"  Sure enough, Brian tells me that 3 or 4 groups have actually broken into song.    


We've got much more work to do, and many questions to answer and explore in the process of developing and refining the experience, but this speedy prototyping brought new energy and joy to our work.  Our cost?  Still pretty much zero dollars.

(and, in the shameless self-promotion category:  if you want to embark on rethinking your historic house interpretation, be in touch.  We can work together on a process that can create real change and meaning.)


Monday, August 4, 2014

"Their Lives are Full of Art" Visiting the Museum of Innocence


This past spring, Marieke van Damme and I separately had the chance to visit the Museum of Innocence, in Istanbul, winner of this year’s European Museum of the Year award. We had a great conversation about it, and she’s been good enough to share her thoughts here on this unusual museum experience, created by Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk. Marieke is is a museum professional based in Boston. Her recent project, Joyful Museums, explores museum workplace culture. She invites you to weigh in on what your workplace is like here. Results of the survey will be posted this fall.


I fell in love with Orhan Pamuk’s grand writing style when I picked up Snow at the Harvard Book Store in 2008, a couple of years after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  While planning for a trip to Turkey earlier this year [2014], I crammed as much Pamuk in as I could, simultaneously reading Istanbul: Memories and the City, The Museum of Innocence, and The Innocence of Objects, Pamuk’s catalog of the museum he created in Istanbul. The books did not disappoint--I had a feel for the city before I arrived and, once there, felt I knew its secrets just a little bit more than my traveling companions.

I had the pleasure of visiting Turkey with the University of Michigan’s Knight Wallace Fellowship, where my husband was a 2014 fellow. Together we visited politicians, toured the Bosphorous, bought an incredible number of scarves, and ate gorgeous lamb dishes with candied pumpkin desserts. While visiting the MoI was number one on my must-see sites, I unfortunately didn’t visit until my last full day in Turkey. After 16 days of non-stop activities in four areas of the country, I was exhausted and much preferred the idea of sitting by the Golden Horn drinking Turkish coffee. Luckily I had made an appointment to meet with Esra Aysun, the Director (who has since moved on)  that afternoon so off we went in search of the museum.

It isn’t terrible easy to find. The streets in the neighbourhood of Beyo─člu are steep, winding, and often without clear street signage. As you get closer, the municipal wayfinding and other curious tourists lead you to the site. Inside, we donned the audio tour and set to work listening to Pamuk describe the exhibition.

The book came first, but Pamuk dreamt up both the story and the physical museum simultaneously. In the novel, the main character collects personal objects reminding him of his life with his muse and creates a museum devoted to their experiences. In real life, Pamuk collected objects of old Istanbul, renovated a historic house, and installed three floors worth of curated cases filled with these objects. There’s a lot to take in physically and mentally.

I had very high expectations. I am a fan of Pamuk’s work, I began my museum career in collections so I value objects and their stories, and I’m fascinated by Turkish culture. Also, earlier in the trip I recommended the museum to two colleagues who came back utterly moved by the experience; one of them cried at the beauty of the displays. I thought: This is going to rock my world.

It didn’t. Here’s why.
  • The space is stunningly beautiful, a cabinet of curiosities for the modern era. But to me it felt too clean and too organized. It could have been a shop display instead of a museum exhibition.
  • I made the crucial mistake of reading the exhibition catalog before I visited the museum instead of afterwards. The audio tour repeats much of the same information in the book and I found myself frustratingly skipping ahead.
  • I was exhausted and there was no good place to sit. A bench looking out at the displays would have been very welcomed! Of course, looking at the small and elegant space, I couldn’t identify a great place to put one.
  • Even though I loved the book, I knew the story wasn’t real, and the objects didn’t have power over me. I loved looking at these relics of mid-century Istanbul, but I felt as if I were in a high-end antique shop instead of a museum.

One reason the Museum is so beautiful is because it is simple. It tells one story, not several, and not for varying audiences as most institutions must do. It speaks in one voice and gives only one message. Another reason the Museum succeeds is because it is not burdened by what other museums do. There were no school groups, no excessive signage/wayfinding, no labels, no gallery cards, no security guard watching you sternly. While this is refreshing and makes for an elegant presentation, the lack of regard for the visitor is clear. I visited the museum at the end of a long day of sightseeing ( i.e. scarf-buying) and I was exhausted. Yet there was only one place to sit and it was away from the exhibits. The restrooms were down a narrow set of stairs clearly not up to code. The audio tour, while useful in providing interpretation, was long and distracting. (Am I the only person who has trouble listening thoughtfully and looking intently at the same time? You wear the thing around your neck and it knocks the glass whenever you lean over to inspect a case. It’s a hassle!)

Esra, the Museum’s Director, told me they do consider themselves a museum and have such a designation from the Ministry of Culture. While she acknowledges they are more an art installation than a “museum,” they do collect and interpret objects and consider themselves as a city museum for the average Turkish person, representing the years 1950-1980. I would argue that because they interpret objects through a lens of fiction, the MoI is more art installation than museum. Also, museums, as defined in an American context, hold objects in the public trust, and the MoI was conceived, created, and financed by an individual, making it a fully private institution. Another issue to consider is sustainability; Esra admitted they don’t know how long the museum will stay open, but as long as people read the book, the museum will stay relevant.

The museum just opened in 2012. I find it to be a true millennial museum-- it was created from the imagination of one person, it speaks to the average citizen, and it is just a touch narcissistic.


What I love about Pamuk is his deep connection to the city. I’ve found that many of my favorite authors also use place meaningfully; I’m thinking particularly of John Irving and Salman Rushdie. Why couldn’t there be a museum of The Hotel New Hampshire? Or Zadie Smith’s and Helen Fielding’s London? How different is “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” theme park in Orlando, FL? (I saw the Harry Potter “exhibit” at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and I suspended all disbelief that those “artifacts” weren’t real.) There’s also now a Game of Thrones “Exhibition” traveling the world. The Museum of Innocence (the novel and museum) work because the power of place overpowers the need for a traditional museum experience. It’s also inspired university students in Istanbul to think more about how the city and objects intersect (check out An Innocent City:  Modest Musings on Everyday Istanbul).

Pamuk’s work inspired me, in part, because, as the Director Esra Aysun said,   “Museum visitors are not scared of the objects.” They become “part of the experience” because it is a museum for them. The objects are not intimidating, the whole experience is not intimidating. “People can take pride in their own lives, as characters. They can know that their lives are full of art.” What a simple, but beautiful, idea.

Postscript: Pamuk's ideas for museums are more fully articulated in his Modest Manifesto for Museums; well worth a read. His manifesto is strong in several areas, particularly in stressing the need to interpret history through stories, and to tell the stories of all people, not just the rich and powerful.