A Chapter in Istanbul’s Timeline: Museum of Innocence

(Personally, my affair with Istanbul began 3 months ago, as a wide-eyed, student from India, unknown to the language, manners and culture of this vast city. It was certainly love […]

(Personally, my affair with Istanbul began 3 months ago, as a wide-eyed, student from India, unknown to the language, manners and culture of this vast city. It was certainly love at first sight, and first few breaths of the cold Bosphorus air told me that this would be a deep and passionate relationship. In fact, love was what connected me to my homeland miles away, and love comforted me when Istanbul and its fast life were incomprehensible at first. The Museum of Innocence (or Masumiyet Müzesi), by its very name drew my attention and wonder, and as I began reading the book, my singular life split into two parallel worlds.  I lived through the purity, anxiety, jealousy, joy, agony and curiosity in the pages of the book. Shuffling between exploring the city, schoolwork, student chores and travel, the book and its world became my home and shelter. I felt the same deep love for Füsun, and I too saw ghosts and apparitions of her around the city. I would exclaim with joy when I saw the name Füsun printed on a painting by an artist of the same name, or when a waiter named ‘Kemal’ would serve at a cay shop. I took a walk to Teşvikiye, pointing at the supposed balcony from where it all began. And I followed the narrator’s footsteps, around this glorious, enthralling city. I would spend hours reading, but surprisingly, I withdrew all mental images and expectations of the Museum space itself, and let natural curiosity take over. So it was without doubt that I would visit the Museum at once upon turning the final page of the book!)

A pocket watch frozen in time, a poster of Abraham, a delicate lace glove, or a black and white photograph of a forgotten lover. These are objects of a past long gone, but not entirely forgotten. These items of nostalgia are part of the collection at the Museum of Innocence, derived from the book of the same name by Orhan Pamuk.­­

A master of painstaking detail, and spellbinding passion, Pamuk takes the reader into another dimension. These items, trinkets, memorabilia create a wistfulness for a collective past with a hint of melancholy. Pamuk is a smart writer. His moves in the novel are planned, masterminded and orchestrated to capture the imagination of the reader.  A random collection of objects gain a deeper context and a story, and fiction seems more ‘real’ than fact in this exhibition space. The story is essentially of a love affair, between the narrator Kemal, and his distant cousin, Füsun. Although Kemal is betrothed to Sibel ,an acceptable ‘perfect ‘ match in status, intellect and  social order, a chance encounter with Füsun spirals into unforeseen events.  As with most good love stories, Kemal’s complicated love for Füsun is hindered with major struggles, and soon his love takes form of obsession and fixation.

The museum is a shrine and home for items collected by Kemal which connect him to his ladylove .An obsessive search for happiness and consolation leads to a vast and assorted collection. These objects are housed in 24 Çukurcuma St, a townhouse with red walls, said to have been the home of Füsun. The walk to the Museum is enchanting, and one absorbs the details of daily life in alleys of Beyoğlu, and as described in the book. The narrow streets overflow with antique shops and art galleries of all sizes, with many upscale dealers and showrooms, for those who can afford it.

The Museum of Innocence

It is recommended, that to really experience this unique Museum, one must read the novel (which also holds a ticket to the museum), or cherish history and have a thirst for collections and antiques. If viewed differently, this might be a useless collection of random objects. The objects, set in 83 wooden boxes or ‘chapters’ are not just personal memories, but souvenirs of everyday life in Turkey in the last quarter of twentieth century. Plaques of quotes from the book are little notes for the visitor. The atmosphere of the space quickly draws one inward, with eyes observing layers of detail, and the ears picking up nostalgic voice recordings. Time seems suspended within this bubble.  There are audio guides available for better understanding of the story, and the copies of the book itself are chained to the wall for visitors to refer to. Detailed displays, like the wall of 4213 of Füsun’s cigarettes immediately take the visitor beyond the present moment, into a sense of awe and trying to remember something that didn’t really happen. Maps and plans of Istanbul, photographs and newspaper clippings are all carefully curated in memory of love. Spiraling up to the attic, is Kemal, the narrator’s room, where one can also see the design process of the museum from the manuscripts, notes and drawings by the author and creator. At the gift shop of the museum, one can buy postcards and posters, books and bags, to take away a little slice of the experience.

“Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space.” And indeed in the museum of innocence, a collective history as well as a fictional personal narrative is transformed into a fascinating experience. The museum is also a chapter in Istanbul’s timeline and a search for identity of a nation emerging from a bittersweet past.

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