The Museum of Innocence, part 1

Orhan Pamuk in the Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk in his museum

Novelist Orhan Pamuk, aside from writing long, complex books, and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in the process, started his own museum. The Museum of Innocence, in Istanbul, grew out of research for Pamuk’s novel of the same name, though it is unnecessary to be familiar with both to understand either. The museum’s website includes a mission statement of sorts, A Modest Manifesto for Museums, written by Pamuk. I’m going to deal with a number of the proposals he makes in this and future blog posts. So let’s begin:

Pamuk begins by asserting his love of museums, and quickly establishes his thesis: that small museums are preferable to large ones. Not through size, but because small museums are focussed on individuals rather than governments or the broad sweep of history. To quote:

Museums should explore and uncover the universe and humanity of the new and modern man emerging from increasingly wealthy non-Western nations. The aim of big, state-sponsored museums, on the other hand, is to rep­resent the state. This is neither a good nor an innocent objective.

I agree in part. Large museums celebrate the big picture, often the official picture. But time continues on, and the story being told changes with it. Museums reframe the stories they tell, adjust as new understandings come forward. Consider the “story” museums told about indigenous peoples a hundred years ago – the “noble savage” myth or others even less admiring – and how those stories are being differently presented today. Or African-Americans, as subject or artists. Or women. Times change and museums must change with them.


The Museum of Innocence, exterior view

About former palaces now turned into museums, like the Louvre or the Hermitage, which raise the national story above the personal:

This is unfortunate because the stories of individuals are much better suited to dis­playing the depths of our humanity.

This is true, absolutely. But telling stories requires a balance between the big and small pictures. A van Gogh, for example, who was a deeply personal painter, needs the context of post-Impressionism and the rapidly changing world to be fully understood.

We don’t need more museums that try to construct the historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company, or species. We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane, and much more joyful.

I get uneasy when people start telling the world what it needs. Perhaps the grand, palatial museums we have are enough, though those seem to be concentrated in the first world. I think there is room for the stories of individuals within these grand edifices, and room for more small museums. It would be better if large museums strove to have a small museum contained within them. Art museums are important in the grand histories we tell and retell. They are not so important in the small scale, the human scale.

Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence has been quite well received, even winning  the “European Museum of the Year” award in 2014. Most of the time writers have museums devoted to their own lives – a birthplace or longtime home – rather than creating their own. Orhan Pamuk has set a very good precedent.


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