This Is the Museum of the Future

By Pamuk, Orhan | Newsweek, September 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

This Is the Museum of the Future


Pamuk, Orhan, Newsweek


Byline: Orhan Pamuk

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk explains why he built a museum dedicated to the glory and tragedy of one fictional couple's love.

The museums I visited in my childhood--not just in Istanbul but even in Paris, where I first went in 1959--were joyless places infused with the atmosphere of a government office. In keeping with their state-sanctioned mission, shared by schools, of telling us the "national history" that we were supposed to believe in, these large museums held authoritarian displays of various objects whose purpose we could not quite fathom, belonging to kings, sultans, generals, and religious leaders whose lives and histories were far removed from ours. It was impossible to forge a personal connection with any of the objects displayed in these monumental institutions. Nevertheless, we still knew exactly what we were supposed to feel: respect for that thing known as "national history"; fear of the power of the state; and a humility that overshadowed our own individualities.

The idea of the "Museum of Innocence" was already fully formed in my mind by the late 1990s: to create a novel and a museum that would tell the story of two Istanbul families--one wealthy, the other lower middle class--and of their children's obsessive romance. The novel was going to revolve around a wealthy man who falls in love with his poorer cousin in 1970s Istanbul, where sexual intimacy outside of marriage was taboo even among the richest, most Westernized bourgeoisie. This young woman, the beautiful daughter of a retired history teacher and a seamstress, reciprocates her wealthy relation's love partly because she is looking for a way to leave behind her job as a shop girl and become a film star, but also because she is genuinely in love with him. The novel's wealthy protagonist, in love with his cousin, soothes his despair by collecting everything that his beloved has touched, and as their sad story nears its end, he decides that all these things must be displayed in a museum. I think that if museums, like novels, were to focus more on private and personal stories, they would be better able to bring out our collective humanity.

The collection of objects I had begun to assemble around this time was going to be the vehicle, in the museum, of the families' and the impassioned lovers' stories. On the one hand, the novel would provide a matter-of-fact account of the two lovers' moving tale--like the story of Leyla and Mecnun, the Ottoman version of Romeo and Juliet--and on the other, the museum was going to be a place where objects from daily life in Istanbul in the second half of the 20th century would be displayed in a special atmosphere. The novel was published in 2008 (and in English translation in 2009). The Museum of Innocence itself opened three months ago in Istanbul. This project has been on my mind for 15 years now, and I fully intend to work on it for the rest of my life; here, I want to explore its story so far, and talk about some of its unintended outcomes.

At the start of 1999, I bought a house in Cukurcuma, not far from my studio. I began to imagine Fusun, the female heroine of my novel, living in this building with her parents, and at the same time I started to think about how I could turn this home into a museum.

Back when I was a high-school student in the 1960s, when I still thought I wanted to become a painter, I used to come to these deprived streets to take preparatory photographs for the Pissarro--and Utrillo-style vistas of Istanbul that I liked to paint. Ever since the government had forced the Greek population of the neighborhood to migrate to Greece one night in 1964, this area had come to resemble a ghost town. Whenever my parents had one of their countless, interminable arguments, we used to temporarily move to a flat nearby, in a building owned and left to us by my grandfather. Whenever it was my turn, my mum gave me a huge plastic drum and sent me to the corner shop to fetch some gas for the stove--since the convenience stores in this neighborhood, where the dark, narrow streets were lined with buildings which had neither lifts nor central heating, still sold coal and gas for stoves up until the 1990s, just as was the norm in poor provincial towns.

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