Arts & Culture

‘Museum of Innocence’

6 min read

It is 1975, and a young Istanbul businessman, prosperous and settled, walks into a boutique to buy his fiancée a purse. Behind the counter is a distant cousin – long ago a little girl and now gorgeous and inviting. “I felt my heart rise into my throat,” Kemal remembers, “with the force of an immense wave about to crash against the shore.”

The scene is from “The Museum of Innocence,” a 2008 novel by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk that is just being published in English. Pamuk, a celebrant of his native Istanbul, is this year’s Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard

What follows Kemal’s epiphany of love, said Pamuk during a panel this week (Oct. 14), is in some ways just a “melodrama” of the kind found widely in Turkish literature and cinema. “The boy meets the girl — something, something,” he summed up jokingly.

But that “something, something” is more than love, tragedy, and death. It is also “a discourse on museums and collecting,” said Pamuk. He joined curatory and literary experts in “With the Museum in Mind,” a discussion at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, in front of a packed house.

In the novel, Kemal reacts to the death of Füsun, his beloved, by obsessively collecting objects that remind him of her and of their days of love: jewelry, silverware, ticket stubs, movie posters, a yellow jug.

“Every time I touched the handle of that jug,” he muses, “I would remember those days when I first felt the misery that was to turn me in on myself.”

In the course of the novel, Kemal decides to build a museum to his love. To gather ideas, he visits thousands of small, quirky museums, including places devoted to actresses Ava Gardner and Jane Mansfield. His travels take him to museums for medicine bottles, China tiles, hats, and more.

Pamuk, who worked on the novel for six years, first conceived of using an annotated museum catalog as the narrative form, since in reading catalogs, he said, “we are actually reading a story, a novel.”

The worlds of the novel and the museum are in some ways the same, said panel moderator Homi Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and director of the Humanities Center at Harvard.  Both offer “a kind of joyous containment.”

There is a kind of storytelling in museums, said Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society Museum in Manhattan, since curators give “voice to objects.” And there is a Kemal-like pilgrimage, too, among curators, she said, in their probing of objects, impressions, and ideas.

A novel such as Pamuk’s lights up a constellation of ideas about museums, said Glenn Lowry, A.M. ’78, Ph.D.  ’82, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Like a novel, he said, “the space of a museum … is a fiction” meant to blur the line between the story of an object and its reality

Pamuk’s novel also reveals the act of collecting, said Lowry — even to the point of the pathological, “an irrepressible need to see surrounding objects and store them.”

In his novel, Pamuk presents explicit notions about collectors. They are either proud or bashful, he told the audience at the Humanities Center, the panel’s sponsor. The proud revel in public display, a style that predominates in the West. The bashful shy away from display. They are driven by the same “dark compulsions” of collecting, but “these compulsions are an embarrassment,” said Pamuk. (He called bashful collecting an “un-modern view” still widely held in the East.)

Panelist Helen Molesworth, the Maisie K. and James R. Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art at Harvard Art Museum, praised Pamuk’s novel as a “museum of nostalgia and desire … an anger of love … shot through with a kind of massive libidinal energy.” The objects that Kemal collects are understandable to a curator, she said, since they are an attempt “to create a harmony.”

And like a novel, said Molesworth, a museum is a fusion of public and private spaces. It is both an object for sale and a place to go inside yourself.  She drew a parallel to French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), whose work influenced both Dadaists and Surrealists.

Starting in 1935, as Europe was unraveling and headed for world war, Duchamp acted like Pamuk’s proud collector. He made small traveling suitcases that, like a novel, could be opened and enjoyed in any order: reproductions of his works (and new art) that expressed “his own desire to collect and preserve,” said Molesworth. (There are 268 of these public, portable museums.

But from 1946 to 1966, Duchamp also made art in secret, collecting and creating objects bashfully in order to make, like Kemal, “his own monument of desire,” said Molesworth. “´Etant donnés,” his last major work, can only be viewed through two peepholes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a monument to his four-year love affair with Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins.

Pamuk’s creation and Duchamp’s both acknowledge the immobility of museums. For all his portable “museums” in handsome suitcases, Duchamp chose to create a last work that could never be moved. In the same way, “Kemal’s museum frees him to travel,” said Molesworth, “but be tethered to home” at the same time.

Pamuk’s novels, in fact, celebrate a universality of human emotions, experiences, and desires. But they do so by being tethered to the realities of his native Istanbul. Kemal’s museum, the author says, not only celebrates a lost love, but the constancy and materiality of the city of his birth.

Pamuk, in fact, is taking a radical step with “The Museum of Innocence.” He is building a museum of the same name in Istanbul, opening next year. (Each copy of the novel includes an entrance ticket.) The museum will be filled with real objects that evoke the work of fiction, including Turkish toothpaste, lottery tickets, maps, and postcards picturing the time of Kemal’s love affair three decades ago.

In museums everywhere, “Viewers go to get out of the busy noise of the town,” Pamuk said, with a hint, too, of the refuge that a novel provides. “I like that feeling. My museum is about that.”