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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul

What is The Museum of Innocence?

The Museum of Innocence is a museum of everyday objects from late-20th-century Istanbul life and a companion to the novel of the same name by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.

Museum of Innocence

The Museum of Innocence History

Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk had been distilling the concept of a novel accompanied by a physical museum since the early 1990s. Finally, in 2008, came the novel Masumiyet Müzesi (or ‘The Museum of Innocence’) and the museum itself followed in April 2012. Though the two can be enjoyed separately without knowledge of or familiarity with the other, for Pamuk they comprised one single concept from the beginning. Pamuk began collecting items from junk dealers, friends, and elsewhere, and around these ‘found objects’ the narrative of The Museum of Innocence began to form. The museum therefore presents itself as a collection of the objects that characters in the book ‘used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of’, but more generally it contains interesting and varied exhibits of everyday objects from life in Istanbul during the timeline of the story, between the 1970s and the early 2000s.

The storyline of the novel follows the character Kemal, a rich Istanbulite who falls in love with a working-class girl, Füsun, despite being engaged to a woman considered more of his own social station. Kemal and Füsun quickly become intimate but then lose touch with each other for a year. When they are reunited, though Kemal has broken off his engagement, Füsun has now married another man. Kemal, having developed a compulsive obsession with Füsun, continues meeting her and her new family for eight years under the pretence of being a distant relative. During this time, Kemal collects objects belonging or related to Füsun to console himself with. In the context of the book, the museum you see here in Çukurcuma is supposedly Füsun’s house that Kemal has converted into a ‘Museum of Innocence’ using the objects he has collected from her life.

If collecting the objects and writing the novel around the inspiration they gave were not an arduous enough labour of love for Pamuk, finding a site for the museum also brought its own difficulties. A planned exhibit at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair was cancelled, and it took a further four years for the museum in Istanbul to open. In this time, Pamuk and his assistants scouted buildings around the Beyoğlu district for a suitable home – this occasionally involved opening the door of a seemingly abandoned building, only to be greeted by rows of children sat watching cartoons on a flickering old TV set! However, the setting they eventually found here in Çukurcuma is fitting, the neighbourhood’s narrow streets famous for their antique shops and bohemian cafés, as well as playing host to much of the action in the novel.

Pamuk has used the Museum of Innocence to express his feelings on the value of personal objects and the future of museums as institutions. In his ‘Modest Manifesto for Museums’ Pamuk pays homage to ‘monumental’ spaces like the Louvre and British Museum, but expresses his wish for future museums to be more intimate and personal, telling tales of history and culture through individual, human experiences rather than through the paradigm of great empires and nation states. ‘The future of museums,’ muses Pamuk, ‘is inside our own homes’.

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