Two cries, as throaty and resonant as bullfrog songs, often echo around the streets near Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence: ‘Eskiciiii!’ and ‘hurdacııı!’
They are the self-annunciations of junk or used-item dealers – hurdacı and eskici in Turkish – who prowl the gentrified neighbourhood of Çukurcuma, pushing wooden carts over cobblestones, on the lookout for discarded goods they can pick up and try to sell.
The rundown neighbourhood where Pamuk bought the museum building more than a decade ago has since become one of Istanbul’s must-see tourist destinations. Most of the businesses on the museum’s street are now antique shops, selling bits of Istanbul nostalgia that wouldn’t look out of place in the Museum of Innocence itself.
Each display in the museum, which opened on April 27, is a shrine to the intricacy of daily life. The 83 exhibits represent the chapters in Pamuk’s novel, but they only feature the most commonplace of items: a spoon a character holds in one scene, a handful of movie tickets, a movie poster, a model train, a map of Istanbul, a scrap of wallpaper – every display artfully arranged like the bounty from a vintage scavenger hunt.
Pamuk began collecting these items before writing the novel, with the original plan of writing an annotated museum catalogue so thorough that it would ‘read like a novel’. Eventually, he decided to write a fictional novel after all, but the museum items continued to provide the material minutiae for his story. He would first find them then add them into the story.
Readers never remember such details a few months after they finish a book, says Pamuk. ‘We remember the sentiments, the feelings that the text generated in us. That’s the glorious part of a novel.’
The real-life museum is intended to inspire that same sensation in its visitors. If the novel is a ‘political encyclopaedia of love’, as Pamuk calls it – an almanac of all the behaviours humans exhibit when they fall for each other – the museum might be considered a monument to the obsessive nature of the emotion, the way a city can become a ‘galaxy of signs that reminded me of her,’ as Kemal says of Istanbul in the novel.
Next to the other museums in Istanbul, crammed with priceless artefacts from the past several millennia, Pamuk’s museum is an oddity. The Nobel-winning author is fine with that: ‘Museums, I argue, should preserve individual reactions rather than tell the history of the nation.’
But social history, of course, is inescapable in Pamuk’s museum. The museum’s very collection represents a new cultural trend in Istanbul: an impulse to preserve recent history through material objects.
Though most visible on the streets of Çukurcuma and surrounding neighbourhoods, the trend isn’t limited to those areas. Collections of matchboxes, lottery tickets, telephone cards, soda bottles and photographs, mainly dating from the second half of the 20th century, can be found in homes throughout the city. Far from mindless hoards, they’re mementoes of the fleeting decades in which Turkey abandoned its peripheral geopolitical status to become one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Pamuk visited dozens of these collections when assembling the objects for display in the museum. After complaining to an interviewer that nobody collects the unattractive but essential accessories of daily life such as toothbrushes, a helpful reader sent him an ‘ample’ collection of old toothbrushes, ‘solving that problem’, Pamuk says.
Through his museum, Pamuk says, he wishes to broadcast one message to the world: ‘that our daily lives are honourable – that the details of our gestures, our words, our smells, our sounds, our objects, are worthy of preservation.’
This is a rare message to hear in a country increasingly focused on discarding the past and pursuing larger metropolises, higher salaries, more modern lifestyles and ludicrously ambitious construction projects. The notion that daily life deserves a museum is indeed innocent in modern Turkey. May it survive long after the streets are empty of junk-sellers’ cries. Julia Harte
Firuzağa Mahallesi, Çukurcuma Caddesi, Dalgıç Çıkmazı 2, Beyoğlu (0212) 252 97 38/www.masumiyetmuzesi.org.
Tuesday-Sunday 10.00-18.00 (open till 20.00 on Friday).Çukurcuma, Museum