Before and After: The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul
Five years ago the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk published ‘The Museum of Innocence’. It is a love story that unfolds in the provincial world of Istanbul during the 1950s and 60s. However, this is a novel with a difference because it is also, quite literally, a museum. As Pamuk developed the story he felt a need to construct a physical space that could play out the verbal story through the exhibition of objects brought together and arranged in one place. Pamuk purchased a rundown building in an old Christian quarter of the city, gutted it and began the process of designing and constructing his museum space on different floors of this small corner house. He had been collecting all sorts of things for years from flea markets and antique stores and maybe even what in Australia we call Opportunity Shops: objects from the period of the story, objects redolent of the moderate westernized society that Istanbul was becoming. These hundreds of objects – toys, tickets, tin signs, lamps, glasses, vases, black and white photographs of Istanbul at the time – Pamuk placed delicately into vitrines and glass cases for placement in the house. These cabinets are reminiscent of the boxes of the American artist Joseph Cornell. The museum is what we would call an installation, even if an installation designed with the intention of remaining there for some time to come. The catalogue of the Museum of Innocence is called ‘The Innocence of Objects’. It was published this year, to coincide with the opening of the Museum, and it helps evoke a lost world in which middle class life in Istanbul carried on without a seeming care for the outside world. We find collages of Turkish film stills, postcards of ships on the Bosphorus, collations of work cards and passes. Each box evokes a different chapter of the book, a different aspect of Istanbul society. It is a wondrous invention, this Museum, but tending toward the melancholy which comes to surround objects over time, a melancholy which is a special preserve of this Turkish writer. It is the work of an unfulfilled architect, which in fact is the case: Pamuk gave up architecture courses for writing in his early twenties. There is another curiosity about the Museum that only dawns slowly. For it is indeed strange that a Museum built by a writer and Nobel Prize laureate should have cases full of every imaginable object, except a book. The closest we get is a book of matches and a driver’s license, suggesting that Pamuk’s characters spend their time smoking cigarettes and motoring around. In my copy of the catalogue I cannot see one monograph. Perhaps the people in the novel didn’t read much, maybe there was a conscious choice by the author to exclude books. But there we have it, a Museum built on the basis of a single book called ‘The Museum of Innocence’, a Museum without any books.
This year the British librarian David Pearson gave the Foxcroft Lecture at the State Library of Victoria. The lecture starts out as a hard-nosed appraisal of the digital revolution and its impact on book learning and libraries. It then turns into a fancy-footwork routine to promote special subject collections. In the process he declares his belief that libraries need to become more like museums. While anathema to anyone who thinks libraries have the purpose of serving readers, it is worth giving some time to Pearson’s position. His view is that libraries need “a more museum-like approach” and an “adjusted set of criteria” for management of collections. Closer inspection tells us that he argues from History. Books of long-term historical value, including books with author annotations or that belong together with one ownership, need to be kept together. The book as an historical artefact, like a Wedgewood bowl or a suit of armour, must be kept apart in a place where it can live on, a reminder of how people did things in other ages. The books he seems most interested in are those of unique value because of their rarity, provenance, bookplate, or marginalia. These books must not be discarded. They must be kept together in museum-like conditions for future use and exhibition. Taken on its own merits this idea has some positives. We certainly want to preserve special books, especially in an information environment today where culling and wholesale disposal of collections is an easy decision for some in authority. No one questions the rightness in preserving special collections that can, in time, disclose new meanings about an author or an owner of a discrete collection. It would be perverse to dispute Pearson’s assertion that history matters, that it helps us to understand where we have come from. He lays out a simple case for keeping special collections in museum conditions. Such collections must be saved from the general traffic. This tendency to make a library a museum has the character of the English gentleman’s attitude to a book collection. This attitude is learned, charming and respectful, but the policy is keep it to yourself, only share it with people like us, and turn it into a talking point, only accessible to researchers under certain terms. This vision of a museum displays an entirely different sensibility to Orhan Pamuk’s. In Pearson’s monographic museum the only objects are books, books that no one can borrow. It is a museum built to preserve history, where the books themselves are already exhibits from another era, the pre-digital era.
Signposts in Istanbul