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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.