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 , 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 Beyoğlu 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.