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Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

August 2022.

Two years after our unforgettable visit to Istanbul in the autumn of 2020, Sladja and I were in Serbia getting ready for an exciting new adventure. We were about to set off on another extended period of travel and online work. It proved to be a memorable yearlong journey that started in Georgia and culminated in Armenia via Greece.

Flying from Belgrade to Istanbul.

Going back to Istanbul.

As fate would have it, our flight from Belgrade to Batumi included a stopover in Turkey. As a result, we found ourselves with an unexpected opportunity to say hi to our old friend Istanbul. With just a day at our disposal, we kept things simple. We reacquainted ourselves with the streets of the old town and crossed Galata Bridge. We went back to the wonderful Pandeli Restaurant for dinner.

Return to Galata Bridge.

Return to Galata Bridge.

Happily, we also got to add another new sight to our Istanbul archives. And what a unique one it turned out to be. Ever the voracious reader, Sladja happened to be in the middle of a book called The Museum of Innocence by the Nobel laureate Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk.

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Parmuk

Set in Istanbul between 1975 and 2000, The Museum of Innocence tells the story of a passionate love affair between Kemal, a wealthy businessman engaged to be married, and Füsun, a working class shop girl who is a distant relative.

Critically acclaimed, the plot tackles various complicated themes, such as female identity in Turkish culture. Moreover, it is a study of how western culture has both influenced and caused problems within Turkish society.

Turkish novelist Orhan Parmuk.

Orhan Parmuk, author of The Museum of Innocence.

Without giving too much of the story away, Kemal and Füsun’s relationship becomes something of a doomed romance. In the novel, Kemal both celebrates and mourns his loss by collecting precious items relating to Füsun and their time together.

Furthermore, he finds himself amassing objects that speak of Turkish culture and the social climate of the 1970s and 80s. Eventually, he decides to display these items in Füsun’s family home, which he buys and turns into a museum. Yup, The Museum of Innocence.

The Museum of Innocence a novel by Orhan Parmuk

Amazingly, Pamuk came up with the idea of creating a real museum in tandem with his novel! Thus he began collecting real life objects and antiques that he could incorporate into his fictional story. Four years after his book came out, his museum was ready to open, which it did with a grand ceremony in April 2012.

Orhan Pamuk.

Orhan Pamuk inside The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk inside his museum.

As soon as we heard about the museum, Sladja and I knew we had to go. So we put aside a few hours for a visit to the city’s Çukurcuma neighbourhood. I liked it immediately, a compact network of clean, quiet streets home to dozens of antique stores and art boutiques.

An antique shop in the Cukurcuma neighbourhood of Istanbul

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

The building that houses the museum is an imposing structure, you definitely can’t miss it. Constructed in 1897, this wooden tenement building was once home to four families spread across four floors.

A visit to Istanbul's Museum of Innocence

The Museum of Innocence.

Pamuk purchased the building in 1999, while it took nearly thirteen years for him and his team of artists and designers to transform it into today’s museum.

Visit the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

There were a handful of people entering and leaving as we arrived. Overall though the vibe was peaceful as we grabbed a pair of tickets (250 Lira / $10 per person) before ducking inside the silent, dimly-lit interior.

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

Tickets for the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul

Spread across three floors (the basement serves as the museum shop), The Museum of Innocence consists of 83 art installations packed with objects. That’s one glass case or cabinet for each of the book’s 83 chapters.

Exploring the Museum of Innocence.

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

The first floor covers chapters 1-51. The second spans 52-79, while the so-called penthouse presents chapters 80-83. As someone who was reading the book at the time, Sladja could immediately recognise many of the objects on display and the roles they played within Kemal and Füsun’s love story.

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

However, I wouldn’t say that the museum is a waste of time to someone unfamiliar with the book and its plot. In fact, I would go as far to say that it stands on its own as an absorbing exhibition of Turkish antiques and social history.

What’s more, it works as a study of what it means to be a collector. How objects from our past are living broadcasters of nostalgia, comfort, bliss, regret, anguish and so much more.

Objects of the past at The Museum of Innocence.

Objects of the past at The Museum of Innocence.

Indeed the museum has received widespread acclaim. In 2014 Pamuk and friends picked up The European Museum of the Year Award. Explaining their decision, a panel of judges expressed their admiration for a museum that is “small, local, sustainable and deeply personal”.

“The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent
a state, a nation, a company or a particular history. Rather, it
should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals”. – Orhan Pamuk. 

Blog review of the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

Fittingly, Sladja and I found the majority of the installations wonderfully inventive and thought-provoking. On the ground floor, for example, we were drawn like magnets to this humongous board displaying a staggering 4,213 cigarette butts.

Huge cigarette butt collection Museum of Innocence

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

In the novel Kemal keeps the remains of every cigarette he sees Füsun smoke. Marvelling at the fact that “Each one of these has touched her rosy lips and entered her mouth”,  he considers them “artefacts of intimacy”.

I couldn’t help but find this act both fascinating and creepy. Even more so when I realised that Kemal took the time to number and date each stub. Sometimes adding short notes about where Füsun smoked them and what they were doing or talking about at that moment.

Kemal's cigarette butts

Kemal’s obsessive nature, definitely the “butt” of a few jokes.

Some of the cabinets relate to locations in the novel, such as this Chapter 2 tribute to The Sanzelize Boutique. This is where 18 year old Füsun works when Kemal first meets her. Boutique items such as a distinctive yellow shoe and fashionable handbag appear in the cabinet.

Later in the novel, Kemal learns that the boutique has closed, sparking a flurry of emotions. “I was pained not only at the loss of my own memories, but equally by a sudden feeling that life had gone on without me”. 

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

The Sanzelize Boutique Museum of Innocence

The Sanzelize Boutique.

Chapter 15 of the novel provides a sober look at the social rules and taboos relating to sex, dating and marriage. Newspapers would often print scandalous exposés about women who’d had sexual intercourse outside of marriage.

There were also sensational stories about young working class women who had turned to prostitution. Tales of females who had been victims of rape or were guilty of being an adulteress. In such cases, photographs of the ladies in question appeared, but with a black bar running across their eyes.

A Few Unpalatable Anthropological Truths

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

Chapter 16’s cabinet is a curious one. Comprised of a single painting, it depicts the fictitious Kuyulu Bostan Street where Füsun lives with her parents. One evening Kemal goes to gaze at the second floor apartment she resides in. Hmm.

Some years later he describes the experience to a painter by the name of Ahmet Işıkçı, At Kemal’s request, the painter recreates the scene in full, including a chestnut tree, an inquisitive street dog and the yellow glow of various window lights.

The jealousy painting Museum of Innocence

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

Speaking of streets, how about this carefully hand-drawn map? Kemal creates it and marks all the streets he should avoid due to the fact that they remind him of Füsun and cause him heartache. Ever the stickler for detail and order, the red streets are strictly off limits. The orange roads only to be negotiated in an emergency. What a guy.

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

The streets that reminded me of her Museum of Innocence

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

One of my favourite displays speaks to Chapter 47, which covers Kemal’s grief when his father passes away. Stuffed with objects, photographs and letters, one is left wondering where exactly Pamuk obtained these incredible items.

Not giving much away, the author says that some of his museum pieces come from his own family history. Others, he fell in love with and grabbed across the many antique shops of Istanbul.

“Every man’s death begins with the death of his father. My father’s death had turned all the familiar props of my childhood into objects of immeasurable value, each one the vessel of a lost past”. – Kemal Basmaci.

My Father's Death Museum of Innocence

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

Between the cabinets, on coffee tables, banisters and shelves, there are copies of the novel itself. They’re just lying around waiting for someone to pick them up and have a read.

Reading the Museum of Innocence in the Museum of Innocence

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

Leafing through one copy, it was fun to read a few pages. And see the scribbled notes that people have left.

The Museum of Innocence with handwritten notes

Cabinet 49 showcases a grotty bathroom sink and mirror. This is the Füsun family home bathroom, complete with all the bits and bobs used by Füsun, her parents, Aunt Nesibe and Uncle Tarik.

I was going to ask her to marry me Museum of Innocence

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

At last, our meanderings took us up to the top of the museum. The Penthouse is the room in which Kemal, now an older gentleman, lives in solitude. It is here that he hires none other than Orhan Pamuk (!) to tell his life story. Recounting his memories, including the full lowdown on his affair with Füsun, he charges the author with the task of writing a book about their romance.

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

The Penthouse Museum of Innocence.

The Penthouse. I’ve certainly seen better.

Also in The Penthouse, a wall of glass units tells the story of how real life Orhan Pamuk wrote the book over a painstaking six years. Interestingly, some of his original notes, scribblings and random thoughts are on display.

Handwritten notes and sketches Orhan Pamuk

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

Handwritten notes and sketches Orhan Pamuk.

Memories and Meanings at the Museum of Innocence.

Finally, after nearly two hours absorbing the many exhibits, it was time to bid farewell to Istanbul’s fantastic Museum of Innocence. Down the staircases we went to the museum shop, where we picked up an MOI postcard as a souvenir. Our very own object of the past, as it has quickly become. Then it was back out into the sunshine in search of coffee.

Museum of Innocence Leighton Travels.

Bye bye.

Like this? Take a look at my series of articles on Istanbul.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • kagould17

    Wow, like you say, both touching and creepy. It would seem that this guy had a definite fixation and was maybe more of a stalker. Keeping every cigarette butt and labelling them. That just sounds nasty. But, love and adoration take on many looks. Have a great Sunday Leighton. Allan

    September 24, 2023 - 4:44 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Very much so. I should point out that as interesting as Sladja found the novel, she wasn’t actually a huge fan. And definitely had a few misgivings about Kemal as a character. Thanks for reading Allan.

      September 24, 2023 - 6:26 pm Reply
  • christinenovalarue


    September 24, 2023 - 4:49 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    Stopovers are a great addition to any trip. Visiting the museum and your other activities was a terrific way to take advantage of this one. There are many things to comment on, but I must say that poor Kemal was horribly obsessed. Kudos to Pamuk for creating such an imaginative reality.

    September 24, 2023 - 4:55 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Obsessed is about right. In fact, Sladja felt Kemal was a hard character to root for, even if she did have a touch of general empathy. Thanks for your comment John.

      September 24, 2023 - 6:30 pm Reply
  • Memo

    How unique. And a labor of something more than love. Six years to write the book and then thirteen years to assemble the museum. It’s almost like the museum is a sequel to the book, additional details and supplemental stories added to the first. I love the idea of a personal museum. I’ll have to assess my collection of things. And Sladja was still reading the book when you went? Talk about a spoiler alert.

    September 24, 2023 - 5:59 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yes, Sladja was in the middle of the story when we visited. That would have been a huge problem for me, but she wasn’t too bothered if she found out some things ahead of time. We are definitely very different readers in that regard. I would pay at least a few dollars to see The Museum of Memo.

      September 24, 2023 - 6:33 pm Reply
      • Memo

        It’s pretty small. More like a shadow box.

        September 24, 2023 - 6:50 pm
  • Juliette

    Oh I love the idea behind this museum, that is so closely linked to the book! I can’t imagine how fascinating it must be for someone who read the book and knows all the little references, but I’m sure it is also really enjoyable if you haven’t read the book – proof is that I loved reading about it! I’d love to read the book (and visit the museum now)! Thanks for sharing!

    September 24, 2023 - 6:09 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you for your enthusiasm Juliette. I was wondering how much of an appeal there would be for people reading this article who haven’t yet read the book. You have partially answered that question!

      September 24, 2023 - 6:34 pm Reply
  • Toonsarah

    Wow, that does sound amazing! Definitely added to my Istanbul wishlist and I’ll try to read the novel before visiting 😀

    September 24, 2023 - 6:22 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for your comment Sarah. I hope you are enjoying Chicago, a city I have fond memories of.

      September 24, 2023 - 6:35 pm Reply
      • Toonsarah

        Yes, having a great time thanks!

        September 24, 2023 - 7:01 pm
  • Lyssy In The City

    That is such an amazing concept! I’ve never heard of anything like that. It is really a labor of love to put that all together and I’m glad you were able to see it while also visiting your favorite spots! I think it was meant to be.

    September 24, 2023 - 6:53 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      It is a genuinely impressive concept isn’t it. And the mind boggles as to how much planning, detail and imagination must have gone into bringing this idea to fruition. Thanks for your contribution Lyssy.

      September 24, 2023 - 7:02 pm Reply
  • Sheree

    How amazing

    September 24, 2023 - 7:22 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for your comment Sheree.

      September 24, 2023 - 7:23 pm Reply
      • Sheree

        My pleasure Leighton

        September 24, 2023 - 9:29 pm
  • postcardbuzz

    It is so cool to have connections to things you see on your travels. This sounds like a lot of fun.

    September 24, 2023 - 7:36 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Absolutely, with Sladja reading the book at the time we knew this was a site we couldn’t miss out on. Thanks for reading!

      September 24, 2023 - 8:48 pm Reply
  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    Fascinating, Leighton! I wasn’t ready for the museum visit to end, but I am going to read the book. Who knows, maybe we will be able to visit the museum one day, which appears to be one of the most unique ones I’ve ever heard of. Thank you for sharing the book and the museum. Can’t wait to read the book.

    September 24, 2023 - 8:16 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      How fantastic that this article has inspired you to read the book Kellye. I wish you good luck as it’s a big ol’ read from what I understand. Around 752 pages in the paperback edition.

      September 24, 2023 - 9:00 pm Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    Thirteen years in the making is a labor of love, which seems to compliment his obsessive, and quite disturbing personality. As you say, creepy; labeling cigarette butts? The idea is so cool though; maybe it will catch on and other authors will follow suit. Very enjoyable and interesting post Leighton. I hope you and Sladja are having a lovely weekend.

    September 24, 2023 - 8:51 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I do like the idea of museums that act as companion pieces to books. In fact, I would love to visit museums that have been crafted from my favourite novels. Can’t see that ever happening sadly, so I guess this museum visit will forever reman unique. Thanks for reading and for your comment Tricia, it’s always appreciated.

      September 24, 2023 - 9:30 pm Reply

    What a very strange concept, and what a strange place to visit. I’m actually really not sure whether I would enjoy this or not, I fear that I’d stepped inside someone else’s mind. Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad experience….

    September 24, 2023 - 8:56 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      You know, I had an inkling (though not sure why) that this place wouldn’t be your cup of tea. Even though I hadn’t read the book prior to the visit I did relate to the exhibition as someone who for many years was an avid collector. And someone who has always been quite nostalgic. I also liked the thematic quality of the space and how certain items on display were representations of Turkish culture at the time.

      September 24, 2023 - 9:24 pm Reply
  • bronlima

    What an amazing story you tell about a story. Fascinating indeed! I have heard of the film of the book…….but never the museum of the book. So, curious to know how their relations ended. I think you will have to ask the author for a commission on future book sales!

    September 24, 2023 - 8:58 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I would be more than happy with any manner of commission on book sales. Can’t see it happening though, sadly. Thanks for checking in, Geoff!

      September 24, 2023 - 9:18 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    Sounds like a great place for fans of the book, but the more I read, the less I thought I’d like the protagonist Kemal. But I’d love it if some of my favourite books had museums like this😊 Maggie

    September 24, 2023 - 9:38 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I was saying the same thing to Tricia from Travel Lens, that museums made from our favourite novels would be awesome. Kemal was not a very sympathetic character it seems. Which is a pity, because the museum is such an incredible idea and very well-executed. Thanks for your comment Maggie.

      September 24, 2023 - 9:51 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    I’ve never heard of the Museum of Innocence whilst visiting Istanbul, but very fascinating! Although I’ve not read the book before, I agree with you that visiting it without knowing of the story can be just as enriching: the artifacts on displays are truly works of art, and they offer commentary on the social, political, and religious parts of Turkish culture, even questioning it. I don’t often seek out museums when I visit a place, but the Museum of Innocence has piqued my interest!

    September 25, 2023 - 2:54 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading about this quirky museum Rebecca. 🙂

      September 25, 2023 - 8:15 am Reply
  • Anna

    I need to read Museum… and then come visit this!

    September 25, 2023 - 9:42 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hope you do, would very much like to read about your own impressions Anna.

      September 25, 2023 - 2:36 pm Reply
  • S Kumar

    It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it. Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently?

    September 25, 2023 - 9:54 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Nice quote Kumar, thanks for reading and taking the time to contribute to the comment thread. 🙂

      September 25, 2023 - 2:36 pm Reply
  • qprgary

    That penthouse would be a couple of mill in Belgravia.

    September 25, 2023 - 11:38 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha, what a bargain!

      September 25, 2023 - 11:39 am Reply
  • Lookoom

    It’s an original concept that delves into Turkish society through an iconic novel; taking us a step further in our knowledge of contemporary Turkey, which is not always easy for a Westerner to grasp.

    September 26, 2023 - 3:56 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Totally agree, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. 🙂

      September 26, 2023 - 10:43 am Reply
  • satyam rastogi

    great article about interesting museum.

    September 26, 2023 - 12:28 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for your comment.

      September 26, 2023 - 6:00 pm Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    It’s awesome that you were able to revisit Istanbul and see some sights that you missed during your first trip here. The Museum of Innocence looks very comprehensive and it’s neat that it was created alongside the novel. Thanks for taking us on a tour. Linda

    September 26, 2023 - 4:24 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for checking out The Museum of Innocence Linda!

      September 26, 2023 - 5:59 pm Reply
  • Diana

    What an interesting story! Creepy and obsessive, perhaps. But interesting nonetheless.

    September 26, 2023 - 5:01 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for adding to the thread Diana. 🙂

      September 26, 2023 - 5:59 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    What a fascinating book, with elements of seriously possessive behaviour – One evening Kemal goes to gaze at the second floor apartment she resides in, for example. I was with you on the hmmm. That said, the points about memories and objects gaining value over time, I like that and it’s very true. Looks like an interesting, thought provoking trip.

    September 26, 2023 - 9:25 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Han, it makes me smile to read how some people, yourself included, have reacted so positively to this article. I am in full agreement that the whole thing works wonderfully despite Kemal’s questionable personality and behaviours. I wonder if perhaps it was even better that I hadn’t read the book, as I was able to focus on the exhibition more as a presentation of Turkish culture and social history. Cheers!

      September 26, 2023 - 11:17 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    I think if one has read the book, this museum should play out almost like a movie. It is actually amazing to read how much detail Pamuk brought into the museum. I love the yellow shoe and handbag and the hand drawn card is quite amazing. Wow, how much time must have gone into putting these exhibits together! And I was surprised at how it ended in the Penthouse with Kemal asking Pamuk to write his story … Pamuk is definitely an imaginative writer!

    September 27, 2023 - 12:28 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I agree that the entire idea behind the book and museum is so very imaginative and cleverly executed. Thanks Corna for checking out my piece on The Museum of Innocence.

      September 27, 2023 - 12:52 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    What a cool thing to be writing a book and creating a museum at the same time. I have never read the book but Ill be adding it to my list. The details and the numerous pieces in the museum really show a pride in the work 🙂

    September 28, 2023 - 5:29 am Reply
    • Leighton

      What incredible planning that must have been eh? To be writing a book but at the same time collecting items that you need to work into the plot and later show in a museum that will bring the book to life in exhibition format. Thanks for checking in Meg!

      September 28, 2023 - 10:36 am Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    I was totally charmed by your report of this museum. I have read a couple of books by Pamuk, an excellent author, and will definitely look for this one. How wonderful to be writing the book and collecting pieces of it in real life at the same time! He was living the story in so many ways. Perhaps there was a romance behind it as well.

    October 12, 2023 - 8:17 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      As a concept it’s mind-blowing eh? Truly next level creativity in terms of being a novelist. I’m glad you enjoyed my look at the museum.

      October 12, 2023 - 10:55 pm Reply

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