Penetrating The Heart Of The Museum Of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk Uses The Word Happiness 264 Times In His Novel, The Museum Of Innocence. He Has Finally Opened The Museum Described There, So Kemal Basmaci, The Protagonist, Should Really Be Happy!

One of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk’s biggest dreams, the Museum of Innocence opened a few months ago. As faithful readers know well, this is the museum Pamuk describes at length in his eponymous novel of 2008. The museum, which derives its essence from the visits the novel’s protagonist, Kemal Basmacı, makes to the home of his sweetheart and distant relative, Füsun (Keskinler), and the objects he collects on those visits, is at Çukurcuma Caddesi, Dalgıç Çıkmazı No. 2.

The first thing we see in this museum consisting of 83 glass display cases representing the novel’s 83 chapters are some trash which belong to Füsun, all of them collected one by one by Kemal on his visits to the house between 1976 and 1984. The last thing is the room where Kemal surveys his life and his museum, with Pamuk’s notes, sketches, corrections, the original copies of the novel, even its unpublished chapters, and on the wall the novel’s closing sentence, “Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life!”  And in between, everyday life in Istanbul from the 1950’s to the 2000’s: seagulls, ferryboats, movie tickets, telephone tokens, handkerchiefs, photographs, slender-waisted tea glasses, in short, every detail that could possibly come to mind, and even a few that don’t.

The idea for the museum first came to Pamuk at a family gathering in 1982 where he met Şehzade Ali Vâsib Efendi, the youngest grandson of the Ottoman Sultan, Murat V. Seated at the same table as Pamuk, this octogenarian who had lived at Ihlamur Palace in Beşiktaş before the Ottoman State collapsed and the dynasty fled Istanbul, made a deep impression on the novelist. He fantasized about the prince taking people around the palace like a museum guide, and this emboldened him and perhaps gave him happiness. “That was how I came to feel the excitement of a person describing to others, years later, the life he had lived along with all its objects. And that was the core idea for the Museum of Innocence, as a novel and as a museum!” If we take Pamuk at his word then, it wasn’t just that one day he wrote a novel and it became very popular so he built a museum. On the contrary, the writer’s initial plan was to exhibit the real objects of an imaginary story in a museum and then write a novel that would be like a museum catalogue of those objects.

Pamuk took his first serious steps in this direction in the mid-90’s when he started collecting the objects the Keskin family might have used. As he puts it: “On the pretext of  compiling an annotated catalogue, I set up a relationship between the art of the novel, to which I’ve devoted my entire life, and the art of painting, to which I could not devote my entire life (and it’s always bothered me). Yes, I was going to build the museum. And the novel was going to tell the story of the objects in it one by one and how the museum came to be. The story moved forward with the objects, but to be able to write the novel I had to decide where the Keskins’ house was going to be. And since the house would later be turned into the museum, that also meant deciding where the museum would be.”

That momentous decision was made at the end of 1999 when Pamuk bought an old frame house built in 1897 just a 12-minute walk from his office in Cihangir. The biggest, most expensive and most visible piece of his collection was finally in place. “I started on the museum and the novel simultaneously. As I was creating the world of the novel spoon by spoon, button by button, cup by cup, I was also thinking that the museum would open when the novel was finished.” Pamuk published his novel in 2008. But the dark red Museum of Innocence only opened a few months ago, four years later. Why?  “Not out of laziness or being unable to collect the objects,” Pamuk explains. “Arranging them in proper order and harmony in the boxes and showcases was one of my concerns. What concerns? That the museum should be beautiful and have an aura about it!”

After collecting the objects for years and planning and sketching the showcases one by one, Pamuk devoted himself completely to the museum during the spring and summer of 2011. “I never touched the novel I was working on for the whole 5-6 months. And that lost time is what the museum cost me,” he complains, adding, “But in the the end, when it was finished, I realized that I had had the happiest experience of my life. But what makes me most happy is that the museum has a soul independently of the book.” Regardless of the fact that the objects displayed in the museum are exactly those described in the book, and that the book actually constitutes the museum, as Pamuk himself points out, words are one thing, objects another. Whether you read the book or not, there is another world here worth delving into.

So what do all these things mean? Pamuk’s short answer: “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.” Then he digresses, “Between the ages of 7 and 22 I wanted to be a painter more than anything. In the end, I gave that dead painter lurking in the depths of my heart license, and he made the various visual arrangements.” He clarifies: “Like in the Thousand and One Nights, a genie got inside me and forced me to create a strange museum.”

One of the most exciting aspects of that strange museum is that it’s going to go on forever. At least for as long as Orhan Pamuk lives: “I’m going to complete the remaining 16 showcases and keep on adding new things here and there and do a whole lot more.” We ask what more he is going to add: “From now on,” he says, “I’m going to combine art and painting with literature, both in my books and in my museum. That’s all I know for now.”

The Museum of Innocence can handle a maximum of 70 visitors at one time, and you need to set aside a minimum of 40 minutes to do it justice. If you go with the novel, you can use the ticket inside the book. For more information:

Explaining the concept of time in the novel, Kemal says, “If we learn to think of life not as a fine line like Aristotle’s Time but as a series of intense moments of which we are reminded one by one by objects, then hanging around our sweetheart’s table for eight years will strike us not as something strange to make fun of but rather like the 1,593 happy evenings I spent at Füsun’s house.” The objects in the museum correspond to those moments and the line that unites them to the story. And uniting time, space and a museum is a great accomplishment

When we ask how much the museum cost, Pamuk replies, “I can’t tell you exactly how much it was, because I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. But there’s this: I built the museum with the money I’ve earned as a novelist with no financial support from anyone, and its cost far exceeded the Nobel Prize money.”