Objects of nostalgia: The Museum of Innocence

Objects of nostalgia: The Museum of Innocence

March 05, 2013

No one understands nostalgia better than Orhan Pamuk. In his saga of love and loss, The Museum of Innocence, and in his museum of the same name, all eyes are on the objects which are the symbols of a life which has passed, never to return again. Nostalgia to most conjures up contrived images for sale, black-and-white photographs of a relative that one never had, a retro 1940s dress, a record scratching out horn lines from Big Band music or a reedy Zeki Müren. In truth, nostalgia isn’t about what can be bought from the past. It’s about a place or a feeling one can never return to again, triggered by one’s memory with the sudden appearance of an object or a mirroring event. What Pamuk does in his novel and his museum is to take nostalgia one step further in the way in which his main character, Kemal, collects objects in order to hold on to potent or potentially potent moments.


The son of a wealthy family in Nişantaşı, Kemal feels at the age of 30 that he is content. About to marry Sibel, a woman from an equally bourgeois family within his social circle, he and everyone else around him believes that the match will be the key to lasting happiness, not anticipating that Kemal will fall in love with Füsun, a distant relative living in the more down-at-heel Teşvikiye. Their heady love affair in the Merhamet Apartment is almost timeless as afternoons of lovemaking play off the objects consigned to the apartment and the sounds of boys playing football outside. As with all good love stories, major impediments interrupt the lovers’ tryst, but a devotion bordering on obsession on Kemal’s part keeps the love alive beyond the affair.


Pamuk began thinking about the novel in the 1980s at the suggestion of friends who thought he should write a novel in the form of an encyclopedia, as many of them were living off writing encyclopedias at the time. He entertained the idea, but the real reason for the creation of the museum itself came to him when he met an Ottoman royal descendant, former Crown Prince Ali Vâsip, in 1982. The prince had made a living by taking tickets and then later as the director of the Antoniadis Palace and Museum in Alexandria, Egypt. He wanted a job in Turkey that would allow him to live there permanently and someone suggested that he take up a position at Ihlamur Palace, where the prince had in fact spent his youth. On hearing this, Pamuk began to imagine in all seriousness the prince guiding a crowd through the palace, reenacting where he sat in his childhood behind the velvet ropes which the visitors couldn’t cross. From there, the character of Kemal and the museum were conceived simultaneously: a museum put together from the mementos of a single person, a real person who was the invisible guide to a life past.


As Pamuk collected more objects, the novel progressed further, and he continued to incorporate one bit or another without speaking of the collection to his friends or family. The reason for his silence was due to a Turkey in the 1990s where no one went to museums and out of a sense that the idea would be crushed if he did tell anyone about his plan. At the same time, he observed that the 1990s in Turkey were not a good time for collectors. Silver dealers in Kapalıçarşı would snatch 300-year-old coins and melt them down immediately to be reused, and junk dealers bought Ottoman calligraphy by the kilo and had it pulped to be used as shopping bags. It was not only these categories of antiques that were destroyed as if they had no meaning, but also anything left over from Istanbul’s Ottoman past and non-Muslim former inhabitants was “incinerated, pulped, or otherwise destroyed. The only survivors of this massacre were those lucky objects that were useful or pretty enough to find a place in the daily lives of Istanbul’s fluid, constantly evolving population – ashtrays, jugs, nutcrackers, coffee grinders, and carousel clocks, for example.” Old objects had no intrinsic value in Turkish society and those who did collect old objects at the time hoarded them. Those “house museums” had a sense of hopelessness to them, Pamuk thought, unlike in Europe where small museums positioned objects next to one another to give meaning to ordinary objects creating “an unintentionally striking web of relationships” much like everyday life.


To truly appreciate a visit to the resulting Museum of Innocence, one must either read the novel, have an interest in Turkey’s past, or have lived through Turkey’s past to recognize the meaning of these serendipitous objects arranged in mahogany glass cases with tiny spotlights. Otherwise, the collection is just an odd gathering of old objects. The museum brings to mind the display methods of older scientific and medical museums such as the first incarnation of the Ashmolean in Oxford or the Musée Frangonard in Paris, which had a preponderance of dark wood cabinets with glass fronts, all tiny but with value placed in the preservation of old objects. Pamuk’s museum is in the same line, drawing from a tradition of small museums in Europe to bestow respect on the “kitsch” of Turkey’s past.


Floor by floor, this shrine to love endows the objects of the past with beauty, anointing them with meaning through their presence in the novel’s pivotal moments. The catalogued cigarette butts with the marks of Füsun’s lips call out for a loving stroke. Seeing them pinned like butterflies behind a case, however, produces a feeling of simultaneous sadness and wonder, and one can’t help wanting to disappear within every date listed on the wall to be present at the moment in which the cigarette was smoked. From there on, there are display cases of various sizes, one for every chapter of the novel. In the “Penthouse” at the topmost floor, we get a very inside look at the creation of the museum through Pamuk’s sketches and pages of the novel’s manuscript written in longhand on large sheets of white graph paper, his word counts and edits marked in red, and empty ink cartridges nailed beneath the sheets.


In The Innocence of Objects — a book about the creation of the museum — Pamuk quotes one of his own characters from another novel, The Black Book. The fictional Turkish journalist Celal Salik recites the story of a crown prince who trashed his possessions to “be his true self” and decamped alone to an old hunting lodge to live with his dreams. Unfortunately he “eventually came to the painful realization that without objects, the world and his life were both meaningless.” The behind-the-scenes book ends with this story so as to stress that the time for Turkey’s recognition of its past and pride in its old objects is now. The 21st century is a coming of age for the country, a time to look back on where it has been and to smile in the comfort that the difficult days of the 20th century are past. Pamuk’s novel and museum serve to jumpstart that recognition. Doing so is a worthy and noble task.