With all the drinking, eating and people-watching to do while travelling, sometimes — sometimes – I find the museum-going with travel to be a bit…obligatory. Some museums are life-changing for me, like the Reina Sofia in Madrid. Others are full of important and beautiful works that leave me feeling like I really *should* read more art history. If only I could pause journeying this forkful of local delicacy to my lips.
On my short visit to Istanbul last year I only had time to visit one museum but it is one absolutely no one spending time in that city should miss: The Museum of Innocence.
This is no ordinary museum. It’s a monument to the relationship between Kemal and Fusun, the two main characters in the Orhan Pamuk’s novel Museum of Innocence. Turkey’s Nobel Prize-winning author and perhaps most famous writer conceived of creating an actual bricks-and-mortar museum that’s a manifestation of one created by Kemal in the book. Which is a very cool idea. But it goes even beyond that.
Pamuk created the museum and acquired the objects for it at the same time he wrote the book, allowing the objects to inform the story. The historical building, built in 1897, is a small vertical structure on Çukurcuma Street, its exterior giving little hint at the wondrous world inside.
Visitors first see an installation of the 4,213 cigarettes that Fusan smoked during the time Kemal knew her. As you walk through the building, you view 83 installations corresponding to the book’s chapters, each providing insight not just to the lovers’ lives and the story but to Turkey and its struggle in the 1970s for identity between traditional and European values.
Audio recordings bring to life the sound of a woman’s stilettos as she walks, people eating. You could linger for ages in front of each vitrine, exquisitely curated with ephemera. I often think of one in particular that was striking and a bit frightening: black and white pictures of women, black bars across their eyes.
The text with the image reads:
In those days, even in Istanbul’s most affluent Westernized circles, a young girl who ‘gave herself’ to a man before marriage could still expect to be judged harshly and face serious consequences: If a man tried to avoid marrying the girl, and the girl in question was under eighteen years of age, an angry father might take the philanderer to court to force him to marry her. It was the custom for newspapers to run photographs with black bands over the “violated” girls’ eyes. Becasue the press used the same device in photographs of adulteresses, rape victims, and prostitutes, the photographs of women with black bands over their eyes were so numerous that reading a Turkish newspaper in those days was like wandering through a masquerade.
I had not read the book when I visited. By the time I reached the top floor, featuring Pamuk’s manuscript and the character Kemal’s bedroom, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. I came away feeling a personal connection to Istanbul and better understanding everyday life. There’s a strong vein of story-telling running through the entire experience, which urges you along.
You don’t have to read the book beforehand to experience the beauty, politics, sadness, upheaval, and obsession embodied in the museum. But I can’t wait to return having read the story, to see how one of my favourite museums can be made all the better.