Between reality and fantasy, a building in Istanbul tells the real story of fictitious characters.
An award-winning Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk has written nearly a dozen novels, as well as produced several non-fiction books and collections of essays. The Nobel Laureate’s work often addresses the history, politics, and cultural and social complexes that mark cities and regions across Turkey, from the border city of Kars in Snow (2002) to the fictional town of Öngören in The Red-Haired Woman (2016). And while he is largely regarded as one of Turkey’s leading, living authors, his cultural and intellectual contributions do not stop at turned pages and recorded lectures. Having published The Museum of Innocence in 2008, which was followed by the opening of an actual museum of the same name in Istanbul in spring 2012, Pamuk’s work transcends the conventional boundaries long adhered to by others in his profession.
Pamuk conceived the novel and museum together more than 15 years before either were created, and they complement the experience of one another. The novel, which Pamuk describes as a love story set in the melancholic back streets of the elite Nişantaşı district of Istanbul between 1974 and the early 2000s, tells the story of Kemal Basmaci, a self-centred man born to a wealthy Istanbul family who has his life turned upside down by an obsessive love for a distant relative from a lower class, Füsun Keskin. Kemal begins collecting things Füsun has touched, as well as reminders of her and their relationship, which eventually amasses to a broad-ranging collection of tokens stored away over many years. Throughout the book, which is told through flashbacks and also details the growing Westernisation of upper-class society at the time, Kemal visits Füsun’s family and sits with them in their home. Once he loses her forever, the protagonist buys the Keskin family home and turns it into a museum devoted to his lost beloved.
The book includes a ticket to the real-life museum, offering readers one free admission. And though the opening day of the museum came years after the book, the date was a calculated decision: 28 April, the day in 1975 when Kemal meets Füsun for the first time as an adult. Located in Çukurcuma, an area of Istanbul where its Jewish, Greek and Armenian citizens co-existed until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the museum is set in a tenement house that would have once been home to four families, each occupying a different floor. Standing on the corner of its street and painted a deep ochre-red by Pamuk, the Museum of Innocence features 83 vitrines of varying sizes, each linked to a chapter in the book and arranged in the same order. Evoking cabinets of curiosities, the glass-fronted display cases hold countless objects collected (and stolen from the Keskin household) by Kemal. The objects include personal effects, such as photos, documents and newspaper clippings, as well as wristwatches, cologne bottles, alarm clocks, jewellery, hair clips, airplane boarding passes, and, perhaps most memorable, the 4,213 cigarette stubs smoked by Füsun, which are stained with her lipstick and mounted on the wall to the right of the entrance, rightly positioned in the background of a large Twilight Zone-esque spiral covering the floor.
The museum is not based on the novel, just as the novel was not written for the museum – Pamuk developed both in parallel, and had been collecting objects since the early 1990s from junk dealers’ shops and friends’ homes. As he found pieces he liked, he would work them into the story and find their place in the museum’s cabinets. Gradually, he formed the narrative that would become The Museum of Innocence, which has been explained in the museum’s catalogue The Innocence of Objects.
Visiting the Museum of Innocence is a surreal experience, and one fights the idea that the story is fiction. The pieces inside tell the story of a group of individuals and the small corner of the world where they lived with such detail and nuance that it is hard to accept the novel as a work of literature rather than a real-life journal of a love-obsessed man. Compounding this state of welcomed confusion is Pamuk’s insertion of himself into the storyline (and museum). On the fourth floor, it is said, Pamuk (perhaps not the real Pamuk but the one from the book) would meet with Kemal to discuss his life’s story, and where Kemal slept while he arranged the museum’s objects. It is also where the novel’s manuscript lays behind glass frames.
“Kemal has a little theory of collectors, he is close to me,” Pamuk said in an interview with Disegno. “I think that getting attached to objects happens in traumatic times, and love is a trauma. Perhaps when they are in trouble, people hoard things. People get attracted to objects. Hoarding reaches the level of collecting when there is a story that unites them.”
Pamuk goes on to discuss some of the objects: “The first story is of a cabinet of curiosities, of tobacco specimens and, crocodile feet… It shows that the collector is powerful and strong. Then, collections become more rational. I was not hoarding, I was building a monument for love, a dignified thing to do.”
An opening line of the novel tells of how an earring of Füsun fell off while the two characters made love, and in one of the first display cases of the museum, lies the earring. And while most of the objects are linked to Füsun, many others highlight the dawn of Istanbul’s modern era: electric shavers, can openers and carving knives, reflecting the city’s bourgeoisie’s eagerness to be the first to own such western inventions, are dotted throughout the museum’s premises.
According to Pamuk, there are four architects responsible for the building that houses the museum. The original architect is from 1897 and is either of Greek or Armenian origins, then 102 years later, Pamuk began rebuilding.
Pamuk worked with Turkish architect and academic Ihsan Bilgin, and later, the German architect Gregor Sunder-Plassmann. The fourth and final architect of the museum is Pamuk himself, who studied architecture in university before switching to journalism. Once he assembled the elements of the collection at his own home, Pamuk was involved in every detail of the display, and from spring to autumn of 2011, Pamuk stopped writing for the first time in more than 30 years.
Pamuk also worked with a skilful graphic design team to create some of the museum’s items, including the Turkish-made fizzy drink that features frequently throughout the book, as well as advertising that displays a German model. As fictitious as the wall of cigarettes ‘smoked by Füsun’, the items appear authentic, despite ultimately being contrived as the brands never existed.
Pamuk’s museum is not simply a tool to retell the story of the novel, nor is the novel simply a love story. Both, upon closer inspection, offer an original experience. While the story oscillates between telling the tale of a man lost in love and life and a city caught between historical movements, the building alternates between museum and art installation, between the telling of real memories and the construction of an imaginary world, both weighed down by a social and urban history. Regardless of where the novel and museum place you, between reality and fantasy, both successfully do what they set out to do: tell, with brilliance and depth, the stories of individuals who may have lived in this country through objects as familiar as pens and pencils. As Pamuk ends his manifesto: “The future of museums is inside our own homes.”
This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the second journal themed ‘In Between’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.