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When a museum is a work of art

February 2013:    When Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Museum of Innocence’ opened in Istanbul last year it joined a tiny group of museums that are real but also fictional – and so seductive you wonder why fictional museums don’t open every week. Naturally the Museum of Marco Polo takes a great interest in these developments.

The Museum of Innocence is real enough. But it is also fictional in the sense that it is a recreation in three dimensions of a fictional museum in Orhan Pamuk’s novel ‘The Museum of Innocence’. In the book the Museum is the memory of a one-sided and passionate love affair between Kemal and Fusun, which lasts a lifetime. In real life the Museum, also by Orhan Pamuk, is about memory, the meaning of things, Istanbul in the 1950’s and how painful is the passing of time. It is also extremely beautiful and in this way reminds me of another fictional museum, this time in Los Angeles, called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Both are the creations of artists and each is a work of art. The fact that each is threaded through with fiction only seems to enhance their charisma.

The Museum of Innocence is in a tall, skinny house in one of those steep, narrow streets that run down from the Istaklal Caddesi to the edge of the Bosphorus not far from the Galata Tower. Step inside and you’ll see that the story is told through boxes. Each box is a window on a lost world, and each mimics the way that memories come to us in lightning flashes, each flash illuminating the fingers that tap the cigarette; the clock that ticks in the corner; the dregs of coffee in the bottom of the cup. Collectively the Museum’s boxes evoke the lost world of Istanbul in the 1950’s when rich young men drove sports cars and old men were patriarchs and wore mufflers and heavy overcoats and had sets of shaving brushes with feathery ends; and chemist shops were filled with little bottles lined up on brown wooden shelves; and wealthy women were bosomy and wore off the shoulder dresses and had big, flashing smiles and beautiful temples. Woven through this world is the love affair of Kemal and Fusun.

In one of these boxes a small child in a home movie squints into the sunlight with a look of innocence and bemusement on her face. It is that innocence and bemusement, as life hits us like a train, that is the subject of this Museum. Its other theme is Time. ‘It was the happiest moment of my life, although I didn’t know it,’ says Kemal, the hero of the story, and straightaway you know that in the Museum of Innocence time runs backwards and that all that is best in life, indeed all its meaning, resides back there in the past.

So if I were being picky I would say that the boxes are a strength, but also a weakness, that they hold the story in too tightly and stop it from leaping out across the rooms, that what’s the point in being able to tell a story three dimensionally and then confining it to two? But this is the pickiness that comes over you when you look at something really good. You want it to be better.

And what really strikes you as you stand in the museum is how eloquent objects are. I don’t mean grand art objects – which speak their own international language – but ordinary things – home movies, cheap toys, photographs, bottles of soda, hair grips, a summer’s dress, clocks, cooking utensils, house keys, summer gloves, a single tennis shoe, each and all of which has been laid out in the boxes. All these objects Orhan Pamuk deploys, just as in his other life he lines up words, to say something that’s in his heart. The objects conjure up an atmosphere and a time, and achieve a tone of voice – smoky, nostalgic, painfully sweet – that words struggle to keep up with. Words are more exact but things can do something different – bypassing the brain and going straight to the heart.

This Museum is emphatically one man’s voice and one man’s vision, and that is its great strength.  The Museum is as personal in its way as a novel, and just like a novel it has its own distinctive voice. You can like it or hate it but either way the novelist/museum-maker shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I’m sorry but that’s how it seems to me. Your past is your past. This is my past. If it doesn’t feel true to you then make your own.’

And he would be right of course. There is nothing to stop each and every one of us using things, just as we use words, to create our own museum, which would be the story of our lives.  By Rachel Morris