In the Çukurcuma neighbourhood of Istanbul there is an unusual building called The Museum of Innocence, a physical manifestation of Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 book of the same name. Over four floors, 83 vitrines display a range of everyday objects, each case relating to a specific chapter in Pamuk’s novel. They contain the kinds of things that its characters would have touched and used, seen or put aside for safe keeping, even dreamed of.
Pamuk has installed 13 of these vitrines in Somerset House‘s Courtyard Rooms, while an adjoining space features a video of an interview with him and facsimile pages of hand-written notes and designs for both the novel and the creation of the museum displays. The novel and the museum are really part of the same creative process; the same idea. “I wrote the book as I collected these objects and made the museum thinking of the novel,” Pamuk explained at the opening. “And [I] wrote the novel thinking of the museum.”
The project was first conceived in the 1990s. Both the text and the objects within the vitrines tell the story of Kemal Bey, the upper-middle class son of a wealthy family and his obsession with Füsun, a poor shop-worker. “When the love story doesn’t go well, he collects everything she touches,” said Pamuk. “Everything they look at – the visual aspects of the city – and images that remind him of her.”
Each of the items placed in the museum is indicative of the time period in the novel – from 1974 to 1984 – and many have an emotional resonance; they trigger memories of Bey’s unrequited love and mirror significant moments in Pamuk’s story. Alongside the objects, which Pamuk collected from friend’s houses and flea markets across Istanbul, video screens play excerpts from filmmaker Grant Gee’s latest work, Innocence of Memories, made in collaboration with the author, and which received its London debut at the BFl Southbank last week.
Though small, the re-staging of the Museum of Innocence at Somerset House has plenty to interest the visitor regardless of whether they know Pamuk’s novel or not. Cleverly, Pamuk has composed a series of signs which annotate each of the vitrines, voiced by secondary characters from the novel. Lovely objects in themselves, these signs form part of a considered exhibition design created by Calum Storrie and graphic designer, Amy Preston (the show is curated by Somerset House’s Shonagh Marshall).
Pamuk’s cabinets – like ‘Wunderkammer’ – play with notions of memory; specifically how the most banal of things can become elevated by the recollections attached to them. “Museums are places where time is transformed into space,” Pamuk remarked. Here, in just a couple of small rooms, is an evocative encapsulation of time and place.
The Museum of Innocence is at Somerset House in London until April 3. See somersethouse.org.uk for more details. The website for Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence in Istanbul is at masumiyetmuzesi.org