Orhan Pamuk gave the 2017 Peter Szondi-Lecture on 17 October at the Freie Universität, discussing
his Museum of Innocence project. He then visited the Centre Marc Bloch to lead a seminar discussion on the project. The following is an abridged transcript of that discussion.
Transcript by Chris Fenwick
Pamuk opened the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul in 2012 as an accompaniment to his 2008 novel of the same name. The novel’s protagonist, Kemal, constructs a museum to honour his love, Füsun. The text is based around objects collected by Pamuk and subsequently displayed in the real museum, which is presented as that made by Kemal and whose exhibits follow the chronology of the novel. In some cases, objects are reconstructions, such as cigarettes, which would naturally decay. In others, they are wholly fictional.
Unlike large-scale museums that narrate national histories, Pamuk’s museum focuses on individual lives and everyday experience. He has expressed his ideas on the role of such small museums in a “modest manifesto.” Pamuk argues that museums should be like novels: they should tell “everyday stories of individuals,” which are “richer, more humane, and much more joyful” than epic historical narratives. “Monumental museums “do not bring out our humanity,” he claims; “on the contrary, they quash it.”
Was your museum inspired by philosophers such as Adorno and Benjamin in its focus on everyday life?
The most interesting part of my inspiration were other museums and texts about them. The Johnson museum in London influenced me. Also the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum, which I wrote about in the novel – Kamal visits it. The Museum der Dinge here in Berlin also partly influenced me, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles and the book about it by Lawrence Weschler. In a way, those museums not only influenced my museum, but also influenced my novel, because I wrote it thinking about them.
What is the relationship between fact and fiction in your museum?
I hope that one day an academic will write a paper on how, in my museum, there are different levels of what German philosophy calls the
“ontological situation of the object.” Firstly, there are Duchamp-like readymades: a cigarette was around, or a lighter was mass-produced – I find one and exhibit it in the museum. But there is a second level: a cigarette was real, but I cannot find one – I make a replica of the object and exhibit that. This is not an authentic object from the period, but a fake object. However, there really was such a thing. Thirdly, there are invented objects. For example, I invented Meltem Soda – I made up an advertising campaign for an imaginary Turkish fruit soda. This was never a real thing. But things very close to it existed. One day I hope an academic writes a paper on the different ontological levels of objects in my museum – on the things that are quarter-readymades, or half-readymades.
Now, the museum contains primarily readymades. But once you have “fake” objects in a museum in combination with real objects, people ask if I’m cheating them, if this is a real museum. I don’t think I’m cheating anybody, since it is based on a fictional story in the first place. But there were times around the opening of the museum when visitors came to me and asked to see a photograph of Kemal or Füsun. It’s my aim to provoke this confusion. It’s my aim to show the fictionality of the whole world. This is easy to do if we talk about texts. But what about fictional objects? The whole museum is about what happens when we start to play around with fictional objects. I am not the only person doing this. Ilya Kabakov and many other contemporary artists are also exploring the possibilities of fictional objects with stories attached.
There is another related problem. We all know that literature and painting are sister arts, especially in English. Lessing made a distinction between painting and literature: literature moves in time, whereas painting does not. The novel The Museum of Innocence opens with Füsun’s earring. And the logic of the museum itself is that in each box I exhibit objects as they appear in the narrative. Yet this object, Füsun’s earring, is talked about at various points in the book. So a problem arises: if the museum is like a painting, I have to show it once, yet if I am following the novel, I have to show it each time. I was aware of this problem – it’s the inner contradiction of my museum. If an object appears each time, it’s too much, but this object, the earring, is prominent. It is the first box, the opening of the exhibition. But then, in another chapter, it is also prominent – and I exhibit it again, the same earring (or a replica). Umberto Eco noticed this when he visited my museum! He said, “Orhan! You have this here, and you also have it here!”
Whenever objects reappear in literature, they are rarely described in exactly the same way. At first, they are described with passion and in detail, but subsequently they simply become “the earring.” When you re-exhibit the object in the museum, what do you do? The object looks just like it did the first time. However, this also relates to the various ontological levels of objects. Once you have seen the first object, the second will appear to be fake. And then the whole project risks falling apart. But there is also what Coleridge would have called “suspension of disbelief.” Now that other contemporary artists have started doing similar things with ontological levels, the public has an understanding of what is going on. When they come to my museum, they are not surprised.
Your manifesto makes an analogy between the epic and the novel. Small museums such as the Museum of Innocence are like novels in that they focus on the “everyday stories of individuals.” These categories have a history in the theory of the novel and derive from Hegel’s discussion of the Bildungsroman as the epic of bourgeois life. Are they not anchored in a specifically Western tradition? In that sense, what implicit role does East/West conflict play in your manifesto and your museum project?
There is no East/West here. It is general. If I am critical of China or developing Asian countries, it is because they are so proud of how they are developing their new “Louvre” or new “Metropolitan.” They are at a stage where they wish to put their grand histories on display. Though I should also say that, after my lecture yesterday, two Chinese students came up to me and said, “We have small museums like that in China!” But in a very sweet way.
Regarding the categories – I don’t look at them as Western categories. When I make this distinction I only look at the categories I have available. I don’t tell myself, “I’ll use some Western categories.” I use them as universal categories. There is not much East/West here – although I did think that this manifesto would be more popular amongst European curators since European museums are already well established.
You compare museums to novels. The experience of reading a novel is a very intimate encounter. How does that work in a museum?
I underlined this to underline the fact that all of us like to preserve details of our lives and put them on a pedestal. If I write about an imaginary bus-stop no one pays attention. But if I name a real bus-stop, then a person can say, “Oh, that’s my bus-stop!” That person is happy that petty details from their life are now elevated within a novel. In the same way, if you see an old telephone at the flea market or your grandmother’s home, it is not interesting. But if you see it in a museum, you can say, “Oh, we also have that!” What is important is that you have a recognition: “My life is important. My details are worth putting on a pedestal. Humanity is interested in that.”
If there is a moral duty in my project, it is to change people’s expectations. In my part of the world, people go to museums to see government signs and symbols – stories about battles, wars and kings. But we do not have a representation of a woman’s kitchen in the Ottoman Empire. I wrote about the kitchen in My Name Is Red and did research into it. This is not something that is usually represented. So my project is also about that.
How do you feel about the political significance of destroying the line between private and public, which your museum seems to do?
In my part of the world museums are very public – indeed, government-controlled – places. In Muslim countries, mahrem – intimacy – is religious and political. So when you begin to show mahrem things it is a political act. But I must confess that this was not my initial thought. My thoughts were more about showing fictional objects in a museum.
What do you think about the relationship between globalisation and museums?
65 or 68 percent of the visitors to my museum are international. In the Louvre, it is 80. In MoMA, it is again around 75 or 80. These places are touristic attractions, and if we are to use the world “global” (although I don’t really know what it means), these places are global places.
Globalisation, mass production and cheap air travel make the world look alike. Once everything begins to look alike, people want authenticity, originality and difference. And museums highlight that. Of course, I am happy that people from all around the world come to visit my museum and that it is a “global” place. But perhaps we should also problematize the question of the “globality” of museums.
How do you relate as a collector to the objects in your museum?
Embedded in the novel is a psychology of collectors. The novel seems to say that the desire to collect is common to humans. When we are at dramatic, important moments in our lives we become attached to things so as to remember. Some do it obsessively, in which case we have not a collection, but a hoard, a group of things. A group of things is elevated to the level of a collection when there is a clear story connecting them. Certain collections are elevated to the level of museums. Then, they are seen as representing important information about, say, a group of people.
I am not an obsessive collector, irrationally collecting and not asking why I am collecting. I am exhibiting a collection in a museum. For example, I had a huge collection, a perfect collection, of matchboxes produced in Turkey. But it just didn’t look beautiful in my museum. So I decided to put it in a drawer for artistic purposes. In the end, as I spent more time on the museum, my energy was spent less on representing the impulses of the collector than on making it “beautiful.”
Your starting point is Aristotle’s theory of time: time is an ordering of moments that differ from each other. What interested you about this?
It is not my starting point! A writer’s starting point is never a theoretical thing. You have a sentiment of – let’s say – putting an African mask and a watch together… But the theory always comes later.
So many modernist writers – T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Jean-Paul Sartre – were influenced by Bergson. In the 1920s he was a very respected philosopher, particularly known for his philosophy of time. It was almost as if, if you were a serious, modernist writer, you had to include some philosophy of time. So I thought, why don’t I do that too? I also have the same aspirations!
The film of the novel was made by Grant Gee. He also made a film called Patience, very similar in style, based on Sebald, who famously went around with a portable camera taking pictures to use in his novels. Was Sebald an influence on this project? Did Sebald’s concept of history – as a kind of trauma that cannot be written about directly, but which must be written around, as a trace left upon people’s lives – influence you at all?
I admire and respect Sebald. He probably influenced my autobiographical Istanbul in the usage of photography. Nabokov loved writing photographic captions, but Sebald was able to use photography in a much more innovative way, because in Nabokov’s time you had to use special, separate pages to print photos. They had captions, but you could not embed them in the text – the book would then be very expensive. Sebald’s discovery is based on the development of computers and printing techniques. That’s the only real connection between Sebald and The Museum of Innocence.
Sebald is not unique in talking about history by talking about people’s private lives. Look at Tolstoy. We do not understand history through reading the philosophical essay at the end of War and Peace. We understand history, for example, through Natasha’s dance. In the end, literature talks about history only through private lives.
Under authoritarian regimes much has to be said indirectly. How does your museum relate to the idea of writing between the lines? A museum seems to be much more direct than a text.
I think the situation is exactly the other way around. You can make a torture museum and exhibit everything that “bad guys” are doing in my part of the world. That has one effect. Or you can write a text about torture. There would be more desire to ban the text. In the case of the museum, it is the tags that make the objects horrific. If you just exhibit the objects and no one knows how they are used, they have no effect. Without words, objects don’t scare anyone. The text, the story or the words need to be censored. You don’t need to censor objects.
Do you know how other museums reacted to your manifesto?
Yes, and I am very happy about it! They like it, and I can see two reasons why. Firstly, it takes museums seriously. My manifesto says that museums should be treated like novels. They are not places for displaying already existing collections – they should not be “modest” places to exhibit things that already exist. Rather, they should be places to be thought about totally, in their architecture, in their composition, in their production – as a vision seen by a single person, like a novel. This can pull out the humanity within each of us and honour our individuality. A Louvre, a big museum, has no central thinking, whereas my project makes you consider the plasticité of the museum. You could also think up your own museum.
Secondly, my manifesto has a social side. Laurent Le Bon, for instance, the curator of the Musée Picasso, is now forming communities of those running museums dedicated to single persons. And my manifesto says, in a way, “Museum creators of the world, rise up! You have only change to lose!” It says that they should be more powerful so that they can be more creative and more demanding.
You know, I like an idea of Nabokov’s. Once they asked him why he was preparing so much for a radio interview. He replied: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” I believe, however, that everyone thinks like a genius. In art and literature, what counts is not to have a genius-like idea, but to pursue that idea and implement it. I gave fifteen years to an idea. That is what counts. Everyone has ideas – my young daughter has ideas. But what counts is making things. What I am proud of in this project is that I gave fifteen years of my life to a strange idea – but now I am happy that it has worked!