Museum of Innocence

No, sadly I haven’t been to Istanbul to see Orhan Pamuk’s ’Museum of Innocence’. I’ve read the book, though (it took me over two months to get through it, and frankly I found it a mostly boring and frustrating read, and yet it has stuck with me somehow).  Also I’m intrigued by the Gesamtkunstwerk that they form in combination, and by the concept of a museum of personal debris and knicknacks, so I hope to get to see it some day.

I’ve now come across Pamuks ’A Modest Manifesto for Museums’ (via an interesting post and discussion thread on empathy in museums on museumgeek’s excellent blog). In the 11 points of the manifesto, Pamuk proposes that

3/ 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.

and that

8/ The resources that are channeled into monumental, symbolic museums should be diverted into smaller museums that tell the stories of individuals. These resources should also be used to encourage and support people in turning their own small homes and stories into “exhibition” spaces. 9/ If objects are not uprooted from their environs and their streets, but are situated with care and ingenuity in their natural homes, they will already portray their own stories.

It is an interesting idea, but more as a polemic position than as a recipe for the future of museology.

On the on hand, it’s a very postcolonial, new-museology-in-the-extreme take on what museums should be, of not only telling the story of the peoples but letting people do it themselves. On the other the idea that objects tell their own stories, that the context is all the mediation they need, is really quite modernist, and does not consider the very different cultural capital we bring to the table when interpreting cultural objects. (In real terms, the objects in the museum are everything but unmediated, as they are accompanyed not only be a catalogue but also by a novel to explain their significance). But the manifesto is also flawed.

For starters, the proposition that the stories of individuals are, as a rule, superior to social narratives is not as self-evident as the rhetorics will have it. What’s more, whilst reflecting on our own stories, and ’thinking with’ the things that we have and hold dear, as suggested by Turkle (Evocative Objects), may be rewarding, studies of visitor’s response to user generated content (e.g. Rudloff 2013, Sanderhof 2012, my own first workshop) show that even though they may find the concept sympathetic, people are not necessarily that interested in other people’s memories.

The suggestion of home (made) museums also links into the debates about digital curation, the part about whether peoples online collections on Pinterest, Tumblr etc. can rightfully be considered curation, or whether the concept of digital DIY curation is just at misunderstanding or watering down of the concept of curatorship.

Having a collection, and being able to curate it, make it meaningful, is not one and the same. Similarly, having a story and being able to tell it does also not necessarily go hand in hand, rather, turning a life story into a narrative calls for the craft of an author. In fact, ’The Museum of Innocence’, the novel, is an example of just that, as it describes how the protagonist employs the author Pamuk to tell his story. It is a fiction, of course, a narrative, just as the objects in the museum are not personal belongings, but brought together from years of flea market scavenging (and, I suspect, an arrangement with a group of women agreeing to smoke their cigarettes wearing a particular lipstick. The display of butts pinned down like insects in a glass cage is absolutely wonderful, I must say). Again, a great concept as a Gesamtkunstwerk, but in no way indicative that anyone’s home and lifestory could function as a museum.

Also, the narrative of the book raises questions of whether we ourselves are in fact capable of understanding our own story. What stuck in my throat about this book (I still haven’t managed to find another reader to discuss it with, but would love to do so as I might have been getting it all wrong) is that is presents itself as a love story, but, for me, it reads like an extreme case of fetishisation, OCD and destructive self-deception. Rather than loving his beloved (and accepting defeat when losing her because he thought he could have it all), the protagonist (in my view) falls in love with his own infatuation, makes a martyr of himself and destroys the life of his one time mistress by taking possession of her life and her possessions. So it is his story, not hers, that is told in the book, and, by effect, in the museum, even though he would see it as a shrine to her. Not so innocent, after all.

Whilst this story is an extreme, a (long winded but) heightened reality as can only be produced by art (although I agree that sometimes real life comes up with something even more amazing), brought into the context of the museum, it is also a cautionary tale, reminding us that the ’authentic’ stories of the public are no less constructed by personal politics than the stories of the museum are constructed by national narratives.

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5 comments
  1. Pingback: #MoMu | Musings

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