A flowery dress, a single earring, black and white photos, and thousands of cigarette stubs… Inside Istanbul’s Museum of Innocence, visitors explore memories of lost love, couples find the privacy to show their affection, and the heartbroken seek understanding for their loss.
“Love is not only a happy meeting, or an encounter. There is also a dark side to love,” Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s first Nobel-winning author, told Anadolu Agency ahead of Valentine’s Day, the yearly celebration of love set for this Friday.
The pocket-sized Museum of Innocence in Pamuk’s native Istanbul is modeled around a heart-wrenching 2008 novel penned by him of the same name. Since he first got the idea in the 1990s, he began collecting objects to put on display in an actual museum.
“The desire to sacrifice oneself, the tendency to see your own feelings as the most important thing in the world, the desire for approval and the feelings of inferiority and superiority stand right on the sidelines,” he added.
“Or, most commonly, the legitimization of much humiliation by pouring love over it,” he explained.
“The upper classes, the bosses, the wealthy even make themselves accepted through love. That’s why we admire the hero who values love over money,” said Pamuk, 67, likely Turkey’s most famous living author.
Opening four years after the book’s release, the Museum of Innocence took up residence in Istanbul’s storied Beyoglu district in a five-floor red 19th-century home.
In 2014 the museum won the European Museum of the Year Award, and it features exhibits on four of its floors in glass-fronted cabinets, which Pamuk once said were inspired by the works of avant-garde U.S. artist and filmmaker Joseph Cornell (1903-1972).
Pamuk personally designed each of the museum’s 83 cabinets as “paintings” referencing different parts of the book.
Each is like a smaller museum in its own right, individually describing “memories and meanings associated with objects from daily life” as described in the novel, according to the museum catalog.
According to Pamuk, the museum highlights “the relationship between our memories and objects.”
“The objects we acquire and see while falling in love also remind us of the stages of our love,” he said.
“If we arrange the objects side-by-side in a museum, the story of our love arises,” Pamuk explained.
He added that in the Museum of Innocence, which houses thousands of objects from everyday life in his childhood in the post-1950s metropolis, one could also find a story of “daily life and Istanbul.”
This is a common theme in Pamuk’s works. When he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006, the Swedish Academy said: “In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, he has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”
Pamuk’s book is set between 1974 and the early 2000s, and tells the story of Istanbul in the second half of the 20th century through flashbacks.
Translated into over 40 languages, the book focuses on the love between wealthy Istanbul businessman Kemal and beautiful shop assistant Fusun, who is also a distant relative.
In the book, Pamuk describes the museum building as representing Fusun’s family home, which Kemal, one of the main protagonists, visits for eight years after she marries someone else.
Pamuk’s game with reality and fiction has brought many to suspect the reality behind the museum.
“Is everything here real?” many visitors have asked Oytun Elacmaz, the current ticket taker at the gate of the quaint building, hidden in an alleyway corner.
Some, in the hope of encountering the writer, ask how often Pamuk himself visits the museum, but Elacmaz said that nobody once had even noticed Pamuk strolling through the exhibits.
According to self-described Pamuk enthusiast Aytug Ungor, 35, the most endearing thing about the novel was that it “plays with one’s sense of reality.”
This feeling resonates among many visitors who took the time to read the book, as Pamuk developed his idea of the plot and museum in parallel.
As he wrote, Pamuk also collected objects to put on display from his family, relatives, and flea shops, some of them still active today, in the Cukurcuma neighborhood where the museum is situated.
Describing the museum as “a work of art,” Ungor said: “I was expecting to see the living room where Tarik Bey and Nesibe Hanim hosted Kemal for eight years,” referring to the parents of the book’s female protagonist.
“Seeing every chapter told [in the museum] case-by-case made me want to reread those chapters,” he added.
Dorit Reznek, 68, an American-Israeli acupuncturist, came to the museum for a second time in roughly four years – this time to show it to a friend.
“I like the whole atmosphere,” she said, praising it for not having an enormous budget and keeping everything simple rather than “bombastic.”
“The Museum of Innocence will forever be open to lovers who can’t find another place to kiss in Istanbul,” Pamuk wrote near the end of his novel.
On the opposite page, readers find the image of a ticket to get stamped at the museum for a free entrance.
Just as Pamuk imagined, his museum has become an attraction for lovers.
“Every year, there is an influx of lovers to our museum on Valentine’s Day,” he said.
It has even witnessed several marriage proposals over the years, according to Ata Tuncer, who has worked at the museum shop since 2015.
Some visitors have even started a new tradition, using drawers in the museum to hide the engagement ring just before their betrothed-to-be arrives.
“We have visitors who met here and became lovers and continue to visit the museum every year,” Tuncer added.
The Museum of Innocence attracts some 100 visitors every day, said Idil Deniz Ergun, the museum manager.
Pamuk split the exhibits into 83 glass-fronted cabinets, with the museum echoing the book’s chapters.
“There are still closed cases waiting to be opened one day,” when the author finds the right object, said Ergun, adding that though empty, these cabinets were still labeled and numbered for the parts of the book they will one day correspond to.
For Pamuk, “Love is a feeling that does not need to be reminded.”
“Our novel seeks to understand this feeling. You yearn for love even when you’re not in love,” he said.
“We idealize the lovers and couples as they base their happiness on love. We also want to be like the devoted lovers, couples we dream of. But our story is a little different,” he explained.
“We want to read other love stories to understand our own story. The source of interest in love literature is our own life, our own questions, excitements and fears. Does our lover really love us? There are much more devoted heroes in the novels!”
For Pamuk, artwork and literature focusing on love take two approaches.
Some “evoke comfort and offer catharsis” for the heartbroken. “The second,” he said, “speak of love to understand what it is.”
“What happens to us when we fall in love? My protagonist Kemal contemplates this issue. The Museum of Innocence was written as a novel to understand the sense of love, not to exaggerate.”
“But of course, there are some things [in the novel] that many find exaggerated,” said Pamuk, whose books have been translated into over 60 languages and sold over 2 million copies worldwide.
When asked about his personal similarities to his protagonist, Pamuk said this is the question he gets the most, adding: “I take it as a compliment.”
“I think [people] want to say that nobody can write what I wrote without experiencing it. I write very slowly, putting much thought into my writing to make it believable. Even if we aren’t experiencing love at that moment, we can experience it by reading,” he added.
Pamuk described Kemal as someone who “respects his love and never gives up.”
“I don’t believe the bourgeois who make fun of his love. What Kemal goes through is not an obsession, it is love,” he added.
“We all need great love stories, whether to console ourselves or understand our own love,” Pamuk added.
Pamuk is optimistic about love in the current age of the internet, where many find matches by swiping and online services, and flirt or ghost suitors using instant messaging.
“Technology did not kill love,” he said.
“I don’t think the feeling of love will change easily. But the ways to express it can change.”
Recalling his earlier novel My Name is Red, which is set in 16th-century Istanbul, Pamuk referred to a character named Esther, a peddler who carries love letters from one house to another.
“But now in the internet age, you can write letters and receive answers at any time. For example, the idea of a lover waiting for the postman’s arrival is over. But love doesn’t end because there is no postman,” the Turkish novelist explained.
“Moreover, the intensity of communication does not reduce love, and on the contrary, correspondence and seeing one another increase love. Everyone wants to believe that their generation is the ‘true lovers.’
“I don’t believe the expression that the lovers of old were better. The important thing is the depth and genuineness of our feelings,” he said: “But when emotions are deep and genuine, pain begins as well because life doesn’t suit your dreams.”