The Museum of Innocence: Love and Madness in Istanbul

orhan pamuk the museum of innocence in istanbul
Posted by on January 28, 2015

The Museum of Innocence:
Love and Madness in Istanbul

It’s all an elaborate and precisely constructed lie: a museum built to tell the story of a self-referential book created around the contents of the soon-to-finish museum. A tale of love and loss, but mainly madness, which is entirely fictional but in which the very real author plays a central narrative role. It is the Museum of Innocence.

museum of innocence istanbul

The story, in both written and curated form, focuses on the character of Kemal and his attraction turned affair turned spurned love for beautiful shopgirl and distant cousin Fusun. As a background and central element of the story, 1970’s Istanbul and the lives of the increasingly-westernized nouveau rich of the period set the tone for a dark but addictive storyline.

the museum of innocence display cases

The museum follows the narrative of the book precisely, presenting 83 displays that each reflect one of the book’s 83 chapters (though some of the displays are still ‘under construction’) and present objects of interest to accompany the storyline. The whole thing has the atmosphere of a sort of cabinet of curiosities, though of course with the difference that every exhibit purports to be a real-world description of the fantasy world created by the author/narrator/curator.

Through it all exists a certain sense of timelessness; a feeling that no matter where or when the human character is imbued with the need to love and to have and, when those aren’t possible, to seize onto the closest thing we can get. In this case as in many, memories and the detritus that we accumulate in our lives as talismans to help us recall those memories.

a sense of timelessness at the museum of innocence

Kemal’s story is one of lust, obsession, and eventual ruin. Were the character real, I expect that most of us would distance ourselves from him in the same way that Istanbul’s high society do in the novel. Reading through his story of madness and being present in the collection of objects that represent his love and loss, however, it’s hard to not only feel for the poor fake soul but to not empathize somewhat with what has been lost. Like so many all of Orhan Pamuk’s novels that I’ve read, the pace is slow and the atmosphere gloomy yet it paints such a vivid picture that it’s hard to walk away from. Melancholic or not, the voyeuristic look into the depth of a man’s follies is an addictive if ultimately unsatisfying glimpse into human character.

The Museum of Innocence itself, though not particularly noteworthy from the outside, is visually arresting from the first glance inside. Mounted on the ground floor is a display of 4,213 cigarette stubs, each of them smoked by Fusun and each noted with a time or date or comments speaking to the very moment it touched her hands, her lips, and so became a part of her story.

cigarette wall at the museum of innocence in istanbul

Though it’s hard to match the visual appeal of that first display, representing chapter 68 of the book, the combination of sights and sounds throughout the three-story museum evokes the story in a way that reading alone couldn’t hope to do. Similarly, the written narrative of the book offers more detailed insights into the characters and their thoughts than can be conveyed just by viewing the museum. You could surely visit the museum without having read the book or give it a read with no intention to visit the museum but, frankly, you shouldn’t. Pick up a copy a month or two before a trip to Istanbul, and give yourself the pleasure of experiencing the story twice in different forms.

If, like Kemal, you find yourself longing for some tangible physical reminder of the experience? Not to worry, there’s a well-stocked gift shop full of small mementoes and Orhan Pamuk’s other works.

museum of innocence orhan pamuk books

Essential Info

Cost: Adults 25TL, Students 10TL. Admission to the Museum of Innocence is free with a copy of the book, assuming the ticket in the final chapter hasn’t been used before. (You should read the book before you go, but note that for adults it also works out cheaper to do so.)

Audio Guide: 5TL. No matter how closely you read the book, I’d highly recommend the audio guide to hear Pamuk’s take (as Kemal) on the history of his collection.

Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 – 18:00, Thursdays 10:00 – 21:00.

More Information: See the official museum website.

The Museum of Innocence is in Istanbul’s Cukurcuma neighborhood (and about a 5 minute walk from one of the best coffeehouses in the city). To get here, take the T1 Tram to the Tophane stop and then walk uphill on the road beside the old cannon foundry. You’ll start seeing signs quite quickly.

In Istanbul I usually stay in the Sultanahmet district near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, either at the Agora Guesthouse for comfort or the Antique Hostel for cheap. I noticed the Neverland Hostel in Beyoglu district just down the street from the Museum of Innocence, and while I looked in and it seemed cool I haven’t actually stayed there.

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16 Responses to The Museum of Innocence: Love and Madness in Istanbul

  1. Caleb

    This is beautifully written and photographed. I’ve never heard of this museum but I’m now greatly intrigued!

    • Stephen

      Double thanks! Once you guys move to Istanbul, you’ll have plenty of time to wander over there and give it a look. Why, I might even be willing to act as a guide in exchange for a bit ‘o couchspace. 😉

  2. Anna

    What a fascinating concept, I’ve never heard of anything like this before.

    • Stephen

      It’s certainly an odd one, but that’s a big part of what makes it so interesting. Definitely check it out if you get the chance.

  3. Roaming Renegades

    This is really fascinating, I love stuff like this, little curiosities and fragments. When we eventually visit Istanbul we will definitely go here. thanks for sharing.

    • Stephen

      You’ll love it. Try to spare enough time to get an audio guide and listen to all the descriptions, I felt like it added a lot to the visit that I’d either missed or forgotten from the book.

  4. Conor Walsh

    This is a pretty cool idea for a ‘musem’ but it seems more like an art installation. Does it get much business? Or is it more for fans of the book?

    • Stephen

      It was nearly empty when I arrived, and super crowded by the time I left. It doesn’t seem to get a ton of marketing, at least internationally, so I assume it’s more people that are familiar with Pamuk. But, I got to chatting with a Turkish girl on the bus to the airport who claimed to love the author but had never visited the museum, so, I don’t know that I can say definitively.

  5. Heather Cole

    Blimey, that’s a bit of a unique idea for a museum, had no idea this was here or I might have been tempted when we visited Istanbul last year. Not sure about the cigarette butts though, bit surreal.

  6. Alli

    The cigarette stub floor display is really quite ineresting . . . ! I had no idea such a thing existed! And I’ve been to Istanbul!

    • Stephen

      Give it a look if/when you go back. It’s a very different vibe from most of the ‘tourist spots’ in the city, but I liked it a lot.

  7. Emily

    I’m definitely going to reiterate the other comments here – this is such an interesting concept! The cigarette stub display must have taken so long to put together – it’s a nice idea that each one tells a story.

    • Stephen

      The thing that you can’t see through the pictures is that it just feels so personal. It’s like these characters were real, and Kemal really built the place as a testament to his love for her and painstakingly compiled all these little meaningless trinkets over years and years and years to help build a picture into his perception of her. IT really is fascinating.

  8. Andrew

    Wow, what the hell was Pamuk smoking? Thanks for bringing both the novel and the museum to my attention -it’s such a unique concept.

    • Stephen

      At least a couple thousand cigarettes, from the look of it!

      No worries, I was so impressed when I went, and it seemed strange I’d read so little about it before in the travelblogosphere.

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