National museum, a difficult issue? Orhan Pamuk on museums
The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s visit to Helsinki gave me a spark for rereading “Museum of Innocence” and deliberating once again his “Modest manifesto for museums”. Many ICOM members remember both from last year’s general conference in Milan, where Pamuk presented an enthusiastic keynote speech in video form recorded in the Museum of Innocence itself.
As it happened, at this year’s ICOM annual meetings in Paris Christopher Whitehead (University of Newcastle) also discussed Pamuk’s book and ideas in his keynote speech focusing, very fittingly to our conference on difficult issues.
Pamuk definitely is somebody whose thoughts we museum pros should ponder on, especially those of us, like myself, representing a national museum. For national museums are something of a difficult issue for Pamuk, something belonging to bygone times. How about that!
In the closing chapters of the Museum of Innocence Pamuk describes, first by his protagonist’s mouth but finally turning to first person account, the real museum in Istanbul, where the book’s story is museumized. There are, according to the novel, thousands of cigarette butts smoked by the novel’s protagonist Kemal’s lover Füsun. They’re carefully placed in display cases and lit beautifully, as are the other items, whose
significance arises from them belonging to Kemal’s and Füsun’s everyday life. I learn from the book that display cases are placed so that the visitor can see them all from one spot, thus observing a whole life-story in one glance. The museum guards are supposed to wear brown corduroy suits to fit the nostalgic and melancholic mood and allow lovers to mingle in the halls for moments of passion, says Kemal, a character from the story, to Orhan Pamuk, the author writing down the story I’m reading and the founder of the real-
What’s true, what not? No matter, the story works and everything concretizes in physical form in the museum exhibition. It could be true, which is enough for Pamuk. No need for facts, nor “real” objects. Those thousands of cigarette butts are made of plastic, lipstick stains painted. Everyday items are from fleamarkets, gathered by Pamuk himself. Made-up story and prop objects – that’s what the Museum of innocence is made of.
This is the kind of playfulness Chris Whitehead referred to in his keynote in this year June meetings, where he went deep into founding stories of Europe, many of which are difficult indeed. Some kind of “history games” a la Pamuk could be a way to deal with contested subjects.
The Museum of Innocence might not deal directly with contested stories, but it definitely speaks volumes about Istanbul and also something relevant about the “depths of humanity”, as the author himself nicely puts it. Here's the thing for Pamuk, I believe: only small and local museums focused on individuals can reach those human depths, not grand monuments or national museums, says Pamuk in the book and manifesto. National museums for him are like epics telling heroic stories of a nation, and as such something belonging to bygone times. He does not deny the greatness of the Louvre, the Hermitage and others, but does not want to see them as blueprints for future museums. (How could they, for encyclopaedic museums of this scale gathering the wealth of whole world cannot really form any more these days?) Pamuk seems to say that national museums alienate visitors from individual’s stories, whose recording and presenting is much more important and enlightening than some grand nationalistic narrative. He parallels development of museums to that of literature, where national eposes have given way to the age of novels. “National museums should be like novels, but they are not”, reads in the manifesto.
Pamuk is clearly a lover of museums, and very nostalgic, I would say. Nostalgia sparks through his whole oeuvre and the Museum of Innocence is about that, and somewhat melancholic his world tastes to me, in a pleasant sense. I recognize the feelings and acknowledge the skills with which he tells something big through something small. I also love the literature comparison, because I myself often find in fiction deeper truths, which are somehow unreachable in factually strict expressions. There are surely times and places for the latter, perhaps just in places like national museums, which have extended responsibilities as a sort of continuation for school education, and serious science is definitely vital for the whole humanity. How could we progress without it? But still, Pamuk has a point. Knowledge is one thing, understanding another. Museums should be places for both, but maybe more for the latter.
Museums should be like novels. I think that’s well put. And opening windows for people to understand “depths of humanity” is a fine goal for any museum. But how come a national museum couldn’t be like this? It surely can, at least where I come from!
Can’t wait to hear what kind of depths we reach next week in the 'Difficult Issues'-conference in Helsingborg!
Chairman, ICOM Finland