When he first published his novel The Museum of Innocence in 2008, Orhan Pamuk already had plans in the works for an actual embodiment of the title institution. The book revolves around themes of obsessive love and objectification—its protagonist, Kemal, devotedly collects artifacts of a short-lived affair with a shopgirl to make up his own Museum of Innocence—and also paints a portrait of a changing Istanbul over three decades. Even as he worked on the story, Pamuk envisioned a real life display that would echo and compliment the fictional one.
A Museum of Innocence exhibition, to be displayed during the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair at the city’s Kunsthalle Schirn, was planned and then canceled the summer before. But Pamuk was dreaming bigger—in 1999 he had purchased and restored a three-story building in Istanbul’s Çukurcuma neighborhood with the seeds of the project in mind. And finally Pamuk’s museum-as-love-letter—to his own novel, to his hometown, and to the nature of love itself—is open to the public. The museum has a Cabinet of Curiosities feel, with items grouped according to the book’s narrative. Some of the artifacts were collected as Pamuk wrote, and some were fabricated or assembled for display, including the wall of 4,213 cigarette butts mounted behind plexiglass that first greets visitors. These represent cigarettes smoked by Kemal’s love Fusun, presumably pocketed lovingly by him, one by one. Other objects include ceramic dog figurines, lottery tickets, old shaving kits, newspaper clippings, a wind-up film projector, and a toothbrush collection—the New York Times has a little teaser of a slide show.
While much of the novel deals with the idea of obsession as a static, inexplicable force—Publishers Weekly called it a “soaring, detailed, and laborious mausoleum of love”—Pamuk has a warmer take on the collection:
“Our daily lives are honorable, and their objects should be preserved. It’s not all about the glories of the past,” he said. “It’s the people and their objects that count.”
The exhibit, including the building’s purchase price, was bankrolled by Pamuk’s 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, the Nobel Committee cited how Pamuk, “in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures”—so this would seem like money appropriately spent.