Rick Poynor | Essays

The Museum of Communicating Objects

The Museum of Innocence at the corner of Çukurcuma Street and Dalgiç Street, Istanbul

A while back, I wrote here about The Museum of Innocence created in Istanbul by the Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. This small, beautifully realized, vertical display, which occupies a burgundy-hued house in the city’s Çukurcuma neighborhood, is a parallel project planned for many years by Pamuk as a development of his 2008 novel, also titled The Museum of Innocence. In my earlier post, I wanted to show pictures of the museum’s displays, but hadn’t been able to take any because photography isn’t allowed. I bought the Turkish edition of The Innocence of Objects, a richly illustrated book about the museum, and have been waiting for Abrams’ English translation. It’s just come out and Pamuk’s text about the project is as illuminating as it promised to be. All the pictures by Refik Anadol shown here are taken with permission from the book.

Orhan Pamuk’s numbered boxes correspond to chapters in his novel The Museum of Innocence

In his museum, Pamuk set out to create a glass-covered box, or other visual interpretation, to represent each of the book’s 83 chapters, giving each box the corresponding title. This huge task isn’t quite complete (will it ever be?) and red curtains conceal several unfinished boxes. Pamuk spent years scouring flea markets and junk shops for the objects in the displays, which encapsulate and encipher moments in the story and in his characters’ lives. In a section of the book titled “Waiting for Objects,” he describes how in Istanbul from the 1960s to the 1980s a new generation of collectors emerged whose houses soon became dusty repositories full of piles of old papers and heaps of curios, often at the cost of alienating the collectors’ families, who were horrified by this uncontrollable compulsion to hoard. “These ‘sick’ collectors were fully aware that their attachment to objects stemmed from personal heartbreak and sorrowful life histories,” writes Pamuk, “but they remained honestly convinced of the importance of their contribution to the very society that mocked them.” One day, the hoarders believed, their pieces could become the basis of museums and libraries. Pamuk recalls visiting these eerie private archives as a child: “we always felt, with a shiver, that the objects were communicating with each other.”

Box 6, “Füsun’s Tears”

Box 12 (detail), “Kissing on the Lips”

This perception that insentient objects, adrift from their original settings and emotional contexts and coopted into complex new configurations, are somehow exchanging vibrations of meaning pervades the Museum of Innocence. Pamuk writes:

What I found most enthralling was the way in which objects removed from the kitchens, bedrooms, and dinner tables where they had once been utilized would come together to form a new texture, an unintentionally striking web of relationships. . . . Their ending up in this place after being uprooted from the places they used to belong to and separated from the people whose lives they were once part of — their loneliness, in a word — aroused in me the shamanic belief that objects too have spirits.

Box 15, “A Few Unpalatable Anthropological Truths”
Women violated and dishonored by men reluctant to marry them were shown in the Turkish press with black bands over their eyes. Adulteresses, rape victims and prostitutes received the same treatment.

Box 17, “My Whole Life Depends on You Now”

The catalogue section of The Innocence of Objects presents the boxes in sequence just as visitors encounter them in the museum. The displays often include old photographs that Pamuk found in flea markets and the book shows many of these pictures as freestanding images for closer examination. There are identity cards, apartment name signs, photographs of ships on the Bosphorus, postcards of the Istanbul Hilton, collectable cards devoted to footballers and film stars, people posing merrily in groups at social occasions, and families standing proudly together in front of their cars — at a time when car ownership was still a privilege and talking point. Throughout the book, Pamuks adds bittersweet reflections and recollections of his early life in Istanbul.

Box 37, “The Empty House” 

Until the age of 23, when he decided to write novels, Pamuk intended to become a painter or architect and the entire project is shaped by his refined visual sensibility. His compositional ideas begin as sketches and assistants help him to achieve the aura and “particular soul” he seeks for each box. They move the objects around in a process of trial and error to discover the most pregnant relationships. For six months in 2011, Pamuk gave up being a writer to concentrate on the museum project; the book has several pictures of him with his creative team. “The more I worked on the museum and realized that I could use the objects to bring out themes beyond those of the novel, the freer I felt.” Both the novel and the museum’s displays can be appreciated independently of each other, though clearly, for those who’ve read the book, a visit to the museum will provide the unusual and greatly affecting experience of a literary world extrapolated into three dimensions on a scale that may well be unique. The objects are eloquent in a language beyond words. 

Box 74, “Tarik Bey”

Photographs: Refik Anadol

See also:
The Strange Afterlife of Common Objects

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Illustration, Media, Social Good

Comments [3]

Interesting idea, I must say that this little displays that I saw in your posted pictures made me intrigued by what the books has to say about them.
Sven Hibrzan

i really want to like this. the tableaux are beautiful. pamuk is a wonderful writer, and so admirable as a cultural force. there is quite evidently an amazing commitment of work and effort and thought and money. but....derivative, precious, and pretentious are words that i'm having trouble scrubbing from my mind. maybe it can be those things and still be powerful and full of meaning. i would love to see it in person.
Mark Lamster

Mark, thanks for this, but is “derivative” a useful word here? There’s a well established tradition of “box art” — by Joseph Cornell (the obvious master), Georges Hugnet, Jiří Kolář, the Fluxus artists, Arman, Marcel Broodthaers, and many others. That’s the art context for Pamuk’s boxes and he must be aware of it, but I don’t think this work should be assessed in purely art terms — Pamuk makes no overt claims for it as art. If we did this, we’d be overlooking its literary, social, museological and architectural dimensions. (I haven’t discussed the building, but the hollowing out of the interior and use of vertical space to form the galleries is very nicely done. It’s like ascending through a timber-built, multi-levelled, Wunderkammer.) One might just as validly consider the project in relation to the tradition of literary illustration, in which context it might seem boldly original rather than derivative. The museum is a hybrid.

Precious? I think you would have to say more about what you mean by that. What would a non-precious project on this scale look like? Or is the mere idea of undertaking such a project precious? One could say that about so many cultural ideas and projects pursued with an obsessive attention to detail. The question for me is: does it work in its context? Obviously I think it does, but you would need to go there to decide.

“Pretentious” suggests he’s making some over-large claim that the museum doesn’t fulfil. Again, the only way of deciding whether that’s so is to experience the museum as a totality in its neighborhood — a neighborhood dense with junk shops and antique shops from which these objects have been sourced (see my previous post about the museum). Anyone who finds old objects and found images a source of fascination is going to have a field day in The Museum of Innocence. For non-Turkish visitors, the contents of these boxes also provide intimate and revealing glimpses of a society and culture that may be unfamiliar.

In The Innocence of Objects, Pamuk discusses the long gestation of the project in the most direct, personal and unpretentious of terms. The tone of the writing is quite different from art writing and he makes no attempt to “theorize” his creation. He writes as a novelist interested in social history, in the emotional lives of his characters, and in the way that objects can become charged with associations and memories.
Rick Poynor

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