Disegno No.3

The Museum of Innocence

Istanbul

27 April 2013

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has blurred fiction and anthropology by opening The Museum of Innocence. An actual museum based on the content of his novel of the same name. He explains to Deyan Sudjic what it means to have collected such a careful and anything but innocent set of exhibits that documents an imagined world in obsessive detail

Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence, published in 2008, at first reading, appears to be the story of a doomed love affair between Kemal the narrator, and Füsun a young woman who though she is his distant cousin, is represented as his social inferior. Pamuk uses their relationship as the underpinning for a miniaturist portrait of the society in which it took place: the Turkey of the 1970s. It’s a world of chauffeur-driven, vintage American cars kept running in the absence of more up to date replacements deterred by tariff walls. There are advertising hoardings adorned by imported blonde German models, a far from subtle cinema industry and venal gossip columnists. But it was also an Istanbul, as Pamuk describes it, that had mass circumcision ceremonies arranged in poorer neighbourhoods for boys whose families could not afford them. It had dance halls and belly dancers; certain streets ran with the blood of sheep sacrificed in huge numbers on holy days.

Turkey had not yet fully come to terms with rapid modernisation: a term that had particular resonance in the republic that Attatürk had built on militant secularism. Istanbul had its SOM-designed Hilton Hotel – in which a key scene in the novel is set. Perched on a hilltop, it was an architectural symbol of modernity, visible from across the city. Yet, it served as much to draw attention to Turkish ambivalence about modernity. Pamuk suggests it was one of the few places in Turkey that couples could register without producing a marriage certificate. This is all described in the novel in exquisite and affecting detail, while in the background the regular military coups, and the bombings of the period, are glimpsed from a distance, barely acknowledged by the characters who furnish the foreground. Gradually, it emerges that the novel is not what it appears on the surface. From the opening of the book, Pamuk’s protagonist starts to measure out the course of his relationship in objects: the earring that Füsun loses when they are making love; the handbag that he buys for his fiancée Sibel, from the shop in which Füsun works, and which he is embarrassed to discover may be a locally made copy of a French original. Pretty soon he is surreptitiously pocketing Füsun’s discarded cigarettes. Then, he starts to steal things from her parents' home. Pamuk is in fact following a long and distinguished literary tradition in exploring the meaning of collecting. It is a theme addressed in Walter Benjamin’s writings as well as those of Henry James. Both authors believed that the writer can be seen as a kind of collector.

Benjamin suggested that: “For the collector, the world is present, indeed ordered, in each of his objects. We need only recall what importance a particular collector attaches not only to his object, but also to its entire past, whether this concerns the origin and objective characteristics of the thing. Or the details of its external history, previous owners, price of purchase current value and so on. All of these ‘objective’ data come together for the true collector, in every single one of his possessions to form a whole magical encyclopaedia, a world ordered, whose centre is in the fate of objects. It suffices to observe just one collector, as he handles the items in his showcase. No sooner does he hold them in his hand than he appears inspired by them, and seems to look through them into the distance, like a portent of the future.”

Pamuk, however, didn’t just explore the meaning of collecting in fictional terms in his novel, he built an actual collection, and a museum to accommodate it, in Beyoglu, the area of Istanbul in which its Jewish, Greek, and Armenian citizens lived until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was where the Sultan installed the trams, electric street lights and department stores that coexisted with an atrophied government system in the last years of the 19th century. It's the area in which Pamuk set Füsun’s parents’ home. It was somewhat rundown at the time they would have occupied it. But is now attracting affluent newcomers, a change made possible by an economy that has been growing with almost Asian speed in the past decade. And this is where Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence opened earlier this year.

Pamuk’s book is in part a reflection on the nature of the museum as physical experience. It is also an account of what it means to collect that appears to be a partly personal. “Kemal has a little theory of collectors, he is close to me,” Pamuk tells me as we sit on a bench in the entrance hall of the museum. “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.”

For Pamuk, the history of all museums begins with the freakish and the extraordinary . "The first story is of a cabinet of curiosities, of tobacco specimens and, crocodile feet". These are the exotic specimens that rich men assemble to demonstrate their wealth. “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.”
His words have the self confidence of poetry; but Pamuk is restless. From time to time he rises from the bench and sets off on a tight circuit of the room, returning to his seat just as I am about to rise to follow him.

The novel reflects a collection that was built up over many years, both before and after Pamuk began writing it. Since his days in the flea markets and shops piled how with salvaged fragments of past lives guarded by unshaven men, the digital world has transformed the way people collect. "Once you did it on foot, you had to walk. With the internet, you collect by finger, click, click, click,” says Pamuk, leaping up and setting off on another of his brief tours of his entrance hall. “We may ridicule that, but the effect was that prices went up. People never collected used toothbrushes, people did not collect liquor bottles, but they did collect small miniature bottles. Key holders used to be collectibles, suddenly, they disappeared."

The museum is a tenement house that would once have had four families living in it, each occupying a floor. Later, it seems to have become a kind of hostel. It stands on a corner. There is a hammam nearby. The house has been painted a deep ochre-red by Pamuk, who sees it as his contribution toward overcoming Istanbul’s greyness. He bought the house in 1998, “There are four architects,” Pamuk tells me, and catching my interest in the spiral cut in the floor explains it is “A simplified version of Aristotle’s theories of time,” explains Pamuk and continues. “One is the original architect from 1897. He was probably Armenian, maybe Greek. In those days, this house was 10 minutes from the Wall Street of the Ottoman Empire, until 1910, until the collapse of the empire, Ottomans still made lots of money. This side of the Golden Horn was essentially populated by the non-Muslim, bourgeoise of 19th century. I guessed that it was lived in by the clerks working in Bank Street. Each generation is 25 years, more or less, so it is four-and-a-half generations since that first architect; we don’t know his name. Then, 102 years later, I began building.”

Pamuk’s first Turkish architect was an academic: Ihsan Bilgin. “I started working with him before I started writing the novel. He trained me to work on a small scale, but there were political problems.” This was at the height of the threats to Pamuk after his plea to Turkey to accept the reality of its treatment of the Armenians, threats that still oblige him to accept the services of his state-appointed bodyguard. “I was nervous to start. Then, Bilgin closed his office and began teaching. I was writing, and at the same time buying things from the flea markets. I had wanted to write a novel about two families, with new objects in the novel that are also exhibits in a city museum, objects of daily life.”

After Bilgin, Pamuk was introduced to Gregor Sunder-Plassmann, a German architect with a track record in working on modestly scaled historical museums. But it's clear that the last, and perhaps the most significant of the architects in the history of the house is Pamuk himself. “I had the idea of writing a museum annotation, one so long that it was both a novel and an annotated catalogue. My first idea was to publish the book and open the museum on the same day. It didn’t work out. Plumbers have trouble finishing on time. There was so much shouting. I got frustrated. It was a wise decision for me not to be an architect. My character is not fit for working with other people.”

Pamuk has written of his decision to drop out from architecture school in 1974, when he was 22 in his memoire Istanbul. He got as far as the third year at Istanbul Technical University. The school was the alternative to the Beaux-Arts approach of Istanbul’s other architecture school, and a puzzling choice for Pamuk, given that he had seen himself as a painter since he was a school boy. “There was a screw loose in my head; the technical university was the naive dark side of modernism. I regretted going there,” says Pamuk. Once the museum took physical shape after the book was published and he had assembled the elements of the collection at his own home, Pamuk was involved in every detail of the display. “From spring to autumn 2011, I stopped writing for the first time in 35 years. I worked at the museum every day at a table.” He spent the time very slowly, drawing out the content of every single case, positioning every single object, interrupted occasionally by the curious, who would knock at the door to ask if this was the Museum of Innocence and if it was open yet. “It was like finishing a novel. Everything was in my head; there were endless, suggestions, repetitions, public and private jokes; additions that enriched the texture of the museum. We had a building, we had the objects. The naive way was to place the objects without hierarchy, in a linear, flat way. I already knew it should follow chapters of the novel. I already had an idea that the museum would narrate through objects. Even if you had not read the book, you would have an idea of a narrative.”

Pamuk’s museum is not simply a literary device, nor is it only a species of art installation, though it could be seen as one. Installations do not however, for the most part, come equipped with an operational fire exit. There is a recently appointed director; there is a bookshop selling postcards and a range of art books; there is a ticket office and security guards. And there is a steady stream of visitors prepared to pay the modest price of admission or it's free if you have purchased the book. Tickets are sold from a window that looks out onto the street: the door opens and they find themselves in the midst of a hollowed out space that Pamuk compares to the Guggenheim spiral. Like the book, which appears to be a love story, but is something else, so the museum only appears to be a museum of social and urban history. It was put together with the kind of skills and techniques that you might expect to find in a new gallery at the Museum of London for example, or the Geffrye in London's East End. It is intelligently lit, there are carefully composed cabinets and cases, and some larger-scale items to punctuate the journey through the museum – with each chapter represented by a case in the same sequence as the book. It culminates in a full-size architectural space on the top floor, the bedroom in which Kemal supposedly stayed while the museum was being built. Then, we see Pamuk’s handwritten manuscripts for the novel, pinned to the wall of the corridor outside.

Though both novel and installation give a remarkably resonant portrait of a complex city at a very particular moment in its long history, it is in fact an exploration of the nature of collecting and its obsessive character. And that is what sets it apart from any museum of civic life that it may superficially resemble. One entire wall of the Museum’s entrance hall displays the 4,213 cigarettes that Füsun smoked from the day she first met Kemal until the termination of their relationship. Each cigarette is annotated in Pamuk’s handwriting, whose angular compression reveals his years as an architecture student. The cigarettes, of course, are elaborate fictions or can perhaps be described as fakes. Even if there had been a real Füsun, she certainly did not smoke these particular cigarettes. But the handwriting is real enough. 

Pamuk has made a museum that is far from innocent. He has worked with a skillful graphic design team to fabricate many items such as the Turkish-made fizzy drink that features prominently in the novel, as well as the advertising featuring the glamorous German model. The label looks utterly authentic; a loving evocation of a moment when sideburns had first sprouted in modern Turkey, but is as fictitious as the wall of cigarettes. The brand never existed. The book is no more innocent: Pamuk’s protagonist, Kemal, shares many of Pamuk’s own biographical details, but there is also a character, named Orhan Pamuk, who takes on the narrative at the close of the book. Pamuk’s lovingly created mementos sit alongside artifacts, which actually are old: wireless sets, bird cages, crockery, cutlery and matchbooks. Some of the glass cases remind me of the collection boxes of American artist Andy Warhol who spent 17 years of his life filling innumerable cardboard boxes in his New York townhouse with the detritus of everyday life. Every time he filled one it was sealed, numbered, dated and shipped off to a store in New Jersey. At the time of his death in 1987 he had completed 610 boxes. They now sit in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. A team of archivists took six years examining their contents and entering the result of their work into the museum’s database. Their content ranges from a moldering piece of Caroline Kennedy's 1986 wedding cake to a mummified human foot belonging to an ancient Egyptian. When I make the comparison, Pamuk tells me that he met the man who catalogued the Warhol boxes. But he is not convinced, “Warhol was so smart about organising his own fame. I did not see it as art. There is a difference between randomly collected objects: these are not random,” he says of his museum. Pamuk may not be entirely convinced by Warhol, but he does see himself in some senses as an artist; and hints at the influence Josef Beuys has had on him.

The Museum of Innocence is a reminder that collecting could be understood as a spectrum. At one end, is the quest for order, provenance and control. At the other, is the kind of collection that can overwhelm the collector: the response to trauma that can turn into a compulsion that ends only with death when reclusive individuals are found overwhelmed by stacks of newspapers and unopened cans of food. It would be fair to say that this is the end of the spectrum that interests Pamuk, even if the Museum of Innocence is a deft and delicate experience of some beauty. The museum is, I suggest cautiously, like a series of miniatures. Pamuk responds by setting off on an exposition of the relative status of the miniaturist and the calligrapher in the Islamic tradition. “The miniature was used to embellish books, the calligraphers were paid more.” He sees the scale of the boxes as a practical question: “You can’t exhibit armchairs or a lot of beds, or big furniture. The intention from the beginning, to use a cliché, was to exhibit the tip of the iceberg, and leave the rest to be imagined.”