The Museum of Innocence: Orhan Pamuk

In 1999, celebrated Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk bought a derelict home on a cobbled, narrow street in the then rundown Istanbul neighborhood of Çukurcuma in the district of Beyoglu. He had saved a bit of money from the success of several recent novels. He had a plan for the house, an embryonic notion of restoring it and displaying objects he had been collecting as research for his next novel. 

On Oct. 12, 2006, the Swedish Academy announced it was awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Pamuk, the first Turkish writer to be so acknowledged. The following year, Pamuk served on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival. Years earlier, he had written the screenplay for director Ömer Kavur’s 1991 feature film, The Secret Face, and his novels are noted for the precision and immediacy of their imagery. Despite his childhood love of painting, Pamuk had little direct involvement with visual narrative until he decided to create a museum in his Çukurcuma house by filling dozens of vitrines with quotidian objects of middle-class life in Istanbul in the late 20th century. The displayed objects would come to reflect the lives and material obsessions of the principal characters in his 2008 novel, The Museum of Innocence. 

The book and the museum tell the love story of two fictional Istanbul citizens, Kemal and Füsan; the depth of Kemal’s passion for the married Füsan is suggested by the very first vitrine, which contains the butts of 4,213 cigarettes Füsan smoked and which Kemal had collected as secular relics that had touched her lips.

In fact, the contents of the entire museum, including an installation of Kemal’s bedroom, are vernacular obsessions of a fictional life made real. The Wikipedia entry describes Pamuk’s process in creating the museum:

Pamuk developed the idea for the museum and novel in parallel from the outset; the museum is not 'based on' the novel, and likewise the novel was not written to capture the museum. This blurring of lines between the two has been explored both in the novel and in the museum catalogue, The Innocence of Objects. In the early 1990s, Pamuk began collecting objects from the past that he saw and liked in junk dealers' shops and friends' homes, gradually forming the narrative that would become The Museum of Innocence. If he saw an object that he thought suited the novel in a junk shop, he bought it and described it in the text. He might stumble upon an object that would inspire a new story in the novel, or he might seek out objects to fit an existing story.

In this brief video, the author explains why he bought the house:

In the last of the novel's 83 chapters, "Happiness," page 520 shows a ticket which, when presented with a copy of the book, gives free admission to the museum. The day Carol and I visited with young, gifted Turkish film director Cenk Ertürk, his brother Alp, and Faruk Güven of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), several members of a Chinese tour group were, in fact, carrying copies of the novel, cross-referencing its text with the narration of the audio tour — a haunting mashup that at times makes you feel you’re actually making a tour of a real person’s home.

The English-language service of TRT has created an introduction to the museum:

There is also a lavishly illustrated museum catalogue that was published by Abrams in 2012, when the museum opened its doors. Though Pamuk is quite fluent in English, his detailed walkthrough of the vitrines’ text is translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap. So many other photographs are included — the city, the Bosphorus and its cavalcade of ships, family portraits, politicians, movie stars and athletes — that the book constitutes a rich visual portrait of a city as it slowly becomes a global cultural and commercial center, even amid the tumultuous military coups of the latter 20th century.

In May 2010, two years before the museum opened, Pamuk was interviewed by Richard Lea of The Guardian. In this clip, the author reads an excerpt from his novel, details his plans for the museum and discusses the dilemma of the novelist in creating a fictional world that aspires to also be a credible document of the real one. (This meta-fictional structure is stretched even further when a fictional Orhan Pamuk appears in the novel.)

Here is an in-depth introduction to the museum conducted by its director, Onur Karaoglu:

Pamuk continues to be the most widely read and the most respected novelist in Turkey, a rarity in a literary world that increasingly seems to separate “serious” novelists from “popular” ones.


Balkon, A Photo Diary: Orhan Pamuk


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