The museums I visited in my childhood—not just in Istanbul but even in Paris, where I first went in 1959—were joyless places infused with the atmosphere of a government office. In keeping with their state-sanctioned mission, shared by schools, of telling us the “national history” that we were supposed to believe in, these large museums held authoritarian displays of various objects whose purpose we could not quite fathom, belonging to kings, sultans, generals, and religious leaders whose lives and histories were far removed from ours. It was impossible to forge a personal connection with any of the objects displayed in these monumental institutions. Nevertheless, we still knew exactly what we were supposed to feel: respect for that thing known as “national history”; fear of the power of the state; and a humility that overshadowed our own individualities.
The idea of the “Museum of Innocence” was already fully formed in my mind by the late 1990s: to create a novel and a museum that would tell the story of two Istanbul families—one wealthy, the other lower middle class—and of their children’s obsessive romance. The novel was going to revolve around a wealthy man who falls in love with his poorer cousin in 1970s Istanbul, where sexual intimacy outside of marriage was taboo even among the richest, most Westernized bourgeoisie. This young woman, the beautiful daughter of a retired history teacher and a seamstress, reciprocates her wealthy relation’s love partly because she is looking for a way to leave behind her job as a shop girl and become a film star, but also because she is genuinely in love with him. The novel’s wealthy protagonist, in love with his cousin, soothes his despair by collecting everything that his beloved has touched, and as their sad story nears its end, he decides that all these things must be displayed in a museum. I think that if museums, like novels, were to focus more on private and personal stories, they would be better able to bring out our collective humanity.
The collection of objects I had begun to assemble around this time was going to be the vehicle, in the museum, of the families’ and the impassioned lovers’ stories. On the one hand, the novel would provide a matter-of-fact account of the two lovers’ moving tale—like the story of Leyla and Mecnun, the Ottoman version of Romeo and Juliet—and on the other, the museum was going to be a place where objects from daily life in Istanbul in the second half of the 20th century would be displayed in a special atmosphere. The novel was published in 2008 (and in English translation in 2009). The Museum of Innocence itself opened three months ago in Istanbul. This project has been on my mind for 15 years now, and I fully intend to work on it for the rest of my life; here, I want to explore its story so far, and talk about some of its unintended outcomes.
At the start of 1999, I bought a house in Çukurcuma, not far from my studio. I began to imagine Füsun, the female heroine of my novel, living in this building with her parents, and at the same time I started to think about how I could turn this home into a museum.
Back when I was a high-school student in the 1960s, when I still thought I wanted to become a painter, I used to come to these deprived streets to take preparatory photographs for the Pissarro—and Utrillo-style vistas of Istanbul that I liked to paint. Ever since the government had forced the Greek population of the neighborhood to migrate to Greece one night in 1964, this area had come to resemble a ghost town. Whenever my parents had one of their countless, interminable arguments, we used to temporarily move to a flat nearby, in a building owned and left to us by my grandfather. Whenever it was my turn, my mum gave me a huge plastic drum and sent me to the corner shop to fetch some gas for the stove—since the convenience stores in this neighborhood, where the dark, narrow streets were lined with buildings which had neither lifts nor central heating, still sold coal and gas for stoves up until the 1990s, just as was the norm in poor provincial towns. Stacks of coal and timber came into the neighborhood on horse-drawn carts and were unloaded onto the pavements. There weren’t many cars around, so children could comfortably play ball on the narrow streets. The backstreets were dotted with cheap dives and brothels.
In the mid-1970s, having shelved my plans of becoming a painter and an architect, I was trying to finish my novel and had, for that purpose, moved into one of the flats we had inherited from my grandfather. Sometimes, the fights between the drunk men visiting the night-club girls and the girls’ thuggish bodyguards would go on for so long that we residents of those cold and dark rooms, waiting in vain for the noise from the street to die down so that we could sleep, resorted to throwing empty bottles, lightbulbs, and tangerines at the noisy drunks below. After the military coup in 1980, the brothels in the backstreets of Beyoglu and Cihangir were shut down and the police became less tolerant of pickpockets, thieves, and purse-snatchers; the fate of the neighborhood turned. Another force that propelled the evolution of this area was, as I was able to witness firsthand, the influx of a new generation of middle-class collectors who came to shop at the small flea market near the museum building.
Toward the late 1990s, with my novel and the museum firmly on my mind, I began to buy a large number of objects from the handful of shops that constituted this flea market at the time. Instead of writing about the objects—the teacup, the pair of yellow shoes, the quince grater—that my novels’ characters used, and then going to look for their physical counterparts, I performed the opposite, more logical process: I went shopping first, or I took, from friends who still conserved them, old furniture, miscellaneous paperwork, insurance papers, various documents, bank statements, and, of course photographs—“for my museum and my novel” was the excuse—and wrote my book based on all these things bought and acquired, taking great pleasure in describing them. An old taximeter found in a shop or a child’s tricycle at a relation’s house acted as inspiration for new storylines I had yet to write. Some objects, on the other hand, remained unused, and found a place neither in the novel nor in the museum simply because the story never moved in a suitable direction. Such was the case with the night lantern from an old horse-drawn carriage and the gas meter left behind from the days when the city was centrally heated, both of which I’d bought with great enthusiasm. By 2008, when I finished the book and had it published in Istanbul, my office and home had been taken over by all this -paraphernalia—to my friends’ great concern.
In the novel, the main character Kemal’s story follows the template of a melodramatic Turkish film: he falls in love with a girl from a less privileged background and suffers enormous torment when she marries someone else. For years he collects those things that she has touched (a wide array of objects ranging from cigarette stubs to hairclips, shoes to school reports) to then display them in a museum. As he himself makes clear at the end of the novel, Kemal’s aim in doing all this is to somehow redeem his sad and shameful story and turn it into something to be proud of. “We get what Kemal is doing in the novel,” my friends said to me, “but why are you making a museum out of what you’ve already written a whole book about? Don’t you believe in the power of words and in readers’ imagination? Don’t you believe in literature?”
I wanted to respond to my friends by reminding them of what I wrote about in my book Istanbul: between the ages of 7 and 22, I devoted myself to art and dreamed of becoming a painter, and since then the artist lying dormant in the depths of my soul has been looking for an opportunity to come back to life. I also felt the need to point out that while novels appeal to our verbal imagination, art and museums stimulate our visual imagination; the novel and the museum were therefore concerned with entirely different sides of the same story. (This is precisely why those who visit the museum, now that it has opened, all share similar reactions, regardless of whether they have read the novel.) Often, I just confessed to not really knowing what I was doing, and that in fact I wasn’t even interested in knowing—not yet, anyway. Perhaps, I’d say, I will finally figure out the true meaning of this museum-and-novel project in a couple of years’ time, after inaugurating the museum, and maybe I’ll reveal it to my students at Columbia University. One thing, though, I already knew: what triggers the creative mind, in art as in literature, is not just the will to transmit the energy of ideas, but also a desire to engage physically with certain issues and objects.
As part of my research for both novel and museum, I spent a lot of time visiting the small museums in the backstreets of Western metropolises. This is how, as a visitor from a relatively poor non-Western country, I first realized how the small-scale and personal museums in the backstreets of Europe are much better suited than large and monumental state-sponsored museums can ever be to telling the sorts of stories focused on individual human beings that we novelists are interested in. I also felt deep sympathy for the personal stories of obsessive and largely forgotten collectors. And finally, while browsing the flea markets of non-Western cities (Bombay, Buenos Aires, St. Petersburg) in the 2000s, I realized that exactly the same old saltshakers, clocks, and sundry knickknacks that I saw in increasingly wealthy Istanbul’s junk shops were in fact easily found the world over. Like migratory birds, objects too traveled on mysterious flyways. Perhaps we need a new field of study—“Comparative Modernity”?—to develop and put into writing these observations, which I’m sure many others will have made.
My character Kemal’s life demonstrates the truth that the human heart is the same throughout the world. All of us—most of us, at any rate—fall in love, one way or another; most of us, faced with a traumatic loss in life or love find consolation in attaching ourselves to objects. But the way we experience love or the impulse to hoard changes from culture to culture and from country to country. The Museum of Innocence focuses on those broken-hearted collectors living in the quasi-modern cultural milieu of a Muslim country where unmarried men and women have little occasion to interact, and where communicating by looks, gift-buying, meaningful silences, and the games lovers play to stubbornly test each other’s will are all refined to an art.
Istanbul’s first “modern collectors” in the Western sense began to emerge in the mid-1990s, just as the city began to experience an unexpected surge in wealth. These new-generation collectors were more rational and more confident than their predecessors, who neither knew nor had any real wish to understand why they felt the need to collect old objects, and frequently ended their days living in homes overrun with junk. Among other things, the new generation was interested in film posters, promotional photographs of film stars, the collectible sports figurines that came with bubblegum and chocolates, matchboxes, old postcards, and telephone cards. I saw the same things displayed by middle-aged, middle-class male collectors in their shops in Singapore, Hong Kong, Cairo, Mexico, and Brazil. The increased reach of the Internet over the past decade has made collecting easier and more common, encouraging the birth of a more determined, more focused generation of collectors based in these rapidly growing economies. Those friends of mine who have an interest in political science and economics sometimes use the phrase “emerging markets”; my instinct always leans toward the idea of “emerging humanities.”
The economic growth we have seen in non-Western countries over the last 10 years is enabling the emergence of a new generation of humanity, both modern and non-Western, whose stories I am sure will soon feature regularly in the literature we read. I believe that museums in these people’s countries should explore this modern and different humanity. Demonstrating the wealth of Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Iranian, or Turkish history and culture is not the issue—this too has to be done, of course, but it is not a difficult task. The real challenge is to use museums to tell, with the same brilliance, depth, and power, the stories of the individual human beings living in these nations now. And so we must envision a new type of museum: instead of state-sanctioned institutions housed in monumental buildings that dominate neighborhoods (such as the Louvre or the Metropolitan) and try to tell a national history, we need to imagine a new type of more humble, modest museum that focuses on the stories of individual human beings, does not uproot objects from the environments to which they belong, and is able to turn the neighborhoods and streets it is in, and the homes and shops nearby, into integral components of its exhibitions. We will all gain a deeper understanding of humanity when modern curators turn their gaze away from the rich “high” culture of the past—like those first novelists who tired of writing sagas about the lives of kings—and observe instead the lives we lead and the homes we live in, especially outside the Western world. The future of museums is inside our own homes.