And on a recent trip to Istanbul I managed to do that with a bit of a twist – it was more like bringing a book alive by visiting a real live place!
Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is one of Turkey’s most famous novels. It is set in Istanbul – mainly in the 1970s – and tells the story of one man’s obsessive love for his distant relation Füsun. Over time this wealthy businessman, Kemal, collects objects connected to his relationship with Füsun – such as her hair clips, cigarette butts and dirty coffee cups. These objects become a ‘museum’ to his obsession. As well as a love story, the novel is seen as a glimpse into the lives of Istanbul’s wealthy classes and the dilemma they faced in balancing their traditional values with the increasingly attractive Western culture of the time. It addresses issues of sexuality, gender, modernisation and religion, while whipping us along the streets of Istanbul in vintage American cars and taking us on ferry journeys up the Bosphorus.
But Pamuk has gone a giant step further than most novelists. Several years after writing the novel, he has built a real life Museum of Innocence in the part of Istanbul where Füsun’s parents have their home, and where Kemal spends a lot of time hoping to catch a few moments with his love (and stealing the odd tea cup for his collection). I have to tell you – I couldn’t wait to go and see it!
Having worked out the museum should only be about a half hour walk from my hotel, I set off on foot – my preferred way of getting around when exploring a new city. Before long, I’d left the main road, and not having the world’s best map with me, found myself slightly disoriented on some steep residential streets. But after a few wrong turns and some energetic twisting of the map, I saw what I was looking for – a corner building painted in a deep maroon color. This was it…
The Museum of Innocence – Istanbul – Image by Suzi Butcher
Now I had heard that if you brought along your own copy of the book, you could gain entry to the museum for free. That is because in the book itself, there is a printed ticket for the fictional museum – well it was fictional when the book was written in 2008 because the museum didn’t exist, but since 2012 when the museum opened, I guess it can no longer be considered fictional – very confusing! The entrance to the museum is a tiny little door with this unobtrusive plaque…
Entrance to the Museum of Innocence – Istanbul – Image by Suzi Butcher
…and you have to walk a few feet further on to find the ticket office, where I handed my book through the bars for stamping. It all felt like I was on some kind of secret mission…
Ticket office at the Museum of Innocence – Istanbul – Very blurry image by Suzi Butcher
And finally I had my own very special stamp and my ticket. Yay!
Very excited to have the ticket in my copy of the book stamped! – Image by Suzi Butcher
I have no photos of my own from inside I’m afraid, as cameras are strictly forbidden. But one of the first items you are met with is a giant wall of cigarette butts, 4213 of them in fact, all of which have apparently been smoked by Füsun. Accompanying each of the butts is a little handwritten note which refers to something relating to the day on which she smoked that particular cigarette. Are you beginning to get the idea of how much detail is involved in this exhibition?
The rest of the museum is made up of 83 glass display cabinets, one for each of the chapters in the book. Inside each cabinet are items related to that particular chapter. There are photographs, crockery, glassware, ashtrays, jewelery; a plethora of everyday items that provide a snapshot of life in Istanbul at the time.
Of course – as a visitor you are then faced with a challenge. How do you reconcile what you are seeing with the book in your hand? Can you really stand in front of each cabinet and read the chapter it relates to and see exactly where the items fit into the story? I have to tell you – I did try. But, I only had three days in Istanbul so it wasn’t exactly practical…even for me, who doesn’t mind spending many hours in a museum!
So instead – I just had to pick some random display cases and read those chapters as I stood in front of them, cross-checking the items with the novel, and then speed-gaze through the rest. It was slightly frustrating as I wanted to know about EVERYTHING and I really wished it hadn’t been such a long time since I’d read the book.
Next time, I’m going to re-read the novel first and then sign up for one of their guided tours, which apparently you can book via email before your visit. I’m not sure how enjoyable the museum would be if you hadn’t actually read the book, though some of the comments on Trip Advisor suggest non-Innocence readers also found value in it. It gets a good four and a half stars from reviewers, though I suspect that most of those who make the effort to visit are already big Pamuk fans, so are pre-conditioned to enjoy it.
What is evident is that this is a huge labor of love for Pamuk. He spent years collecting all the objects as he wrote the novel and a pretty penny putting it all together. Apparently it cost him about as much as he earned for his Nobel Prize – 1.5 million dollars.
After your time in the museum, I’d suggest you wander further up the hill where you will find an interesting array of antique and second-hand shops and a few lovely cafes… all in all, a perfect way to spend an afternoon in Istanbul as a Packabooker.
Enjoying a cup of tea (and a little bit of a read!) after the museum visit – Image by Suzi Butcher
If you are becoming as obsessed as I am, here’s some further reading (some with pictures of inside!)…
Visiting Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Museum of Innocence’ – The Monthly
Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence opens in Istanbul – CS Monitor
Slideshow of images from the Museum of Innocence – xinhuanet.com
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