On a street corner in the quaint neighbourhood of Çukurcuma in central Istanbul sits an unassuming old Ottoman apartment building, dark shutters covering the windows. Thought to be built in the early 1900s, for much of the latter half of the 20th Century it was home to the Keskin family, whose members occupied the second and third floors. Many years later it was bought by wealthy businessman Kemal Basmacı, who used the house to store the thousands of objects he had collected belonging to his lost love, Füsun Keskin. Except that Kemal and Füsun don’t actually exist, at least not in real life. They are the protagonists of Orhan Pamuk’s novel, The Museum of Innocence. Today the apartment building now bears the same name as the book, and visitors can come and view a slice of 1970s Istanbul under the premise of it all being part of Kemal’s collection. It’s an odd concept for a museum, especially considering that to appreciate the full weight of the exhibits visitors need to read the 700+ page novel. But it’s part of a growing trend of museums that focus less on great art or the history of a country, and more about the stories of the everyday inhabitants that reside within them.
Last summer I visited Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, with almost only one thing in mind: the Museum of Broken Relationships. I’d heard about this depressing-sounding museum from a travel companion in Sarajevo, so I steeled myself away from the beautiful Croatian coast to check it out. In a nutshell, the Museum of Broken Relationships is a shrine to the dying moments between two people; romantic couples, siblings, mothers, long-lost uncles, friends. The gallery is filled with trinkets and artifacts, reminders of pasts that went awry. Each item is accompanied by an anecdote written by the owner, detailing the significance of the item and what it meant in their relationship.
The result is incredibly moving. There’s a huge range of items, from matchboxes to fake boobs to an ‘Ex-Axe’, used to destroy a girlfriend’s furniture after she’d left for someone else. Some of the stories are tragic, telling of blossoming relationships cut short by illness or death. Others speak of the melancholy of relationships that crumble away slowly, often without the protagonists realising until it’s too late. The fact that the entire exhibition is crowdsourced gives it extra meaning. People are encouraged to send in their own pieces and stories.
Meanwhile, in Istanbul, The Museum of Innocence focuses on one broken relationship in particular: the one between Kemal Basmacı and Füsun Keskin. Set in the 1970s amid the backdrop of a politically-charged Istanbul, wealthy Kemal appears to have it all, and is preparing to marry the perfect woman. That is, until he encounters the poor Füsun, a distant cousin who works in a fashion boutique. He is immediately smitten, and the two begin an affair that sets their worlds ablaze. In the pursuing of his unrequited love Kemal loses everything; his perfect fiancee, success in his job, his reputation among Istanbul’s bourgeoisie.
Over the course of eight years Kemal attempts to win Füsun back, and he starts collecting mementos of his love to remember her by. They range from saltshakers to her earrings to an incredible 4,213 cigarettes that she smoked over the course of their courtship, all of which are displayed in the museum. The book is a fascinating insight into 1970s Istanbul, and is a tragic recounting of the perils of unrequited love on par with literary classics like Lolita. But what makes The Museum of Innocence stand out is Pamuk’s blurring of what is real and what isn’t. The book is ostensibly fiction, but the physical manifestation in the form of the museum makes one question how much truth there is in the story. It’s a notion cleverly furthered by Pamuk; he even writes himself into the novel as Kemal’s biographer. Even though Orhan Pamuk has denied the book is about himself, he worked on the project for over 30 years. The painstaking detail in both the museum and the book suggests that there’s at least part of the story that rings true.
There are many parallels between the Museum of Innocence and the Museum of Broken Relationships. Both tell stories of lost loves, feature everyday trinkets and tell stories you wouldn’t normally find in a museum. But that’s what makes them so fascinating. If I had a dollar for every time I read that someone wants to experience the ‘true culture’ of a place and ‘live like a local’ instead of just visiting the tourist sites, well…I’d certainly never need to worry about museum entrance fees ever again. With both of these museums, you get a window into the lives of ordinary citizens, whether they are real or make-believe. These could be the stories of anyone; your next-door neighbour, colleague or local simit-seller, and this is why they resonate so much – they could be our stories, too.
On their own the items in both museums are mundane, but together they produce an air of longing for a period of time now unreachable, even if it’s one the viewer isn’t inherently familiar with. Both museums harness the power of nostalgia, capturing the melancholy, pain and eventually closure that comes with the end of any great relationship. While the stories in the Museum of Broken Relationships may not be on such a grand scale, to each of the individual characters they were undoubtedly just as important. Despite all the tragic events, Kemal maintains that he lived a very happy life, and after reading and visiting the Museum of Innocence it’s hard not to believe him. It’s easy enough to imagine that the hundreds of people featured in the Museum of Broken Relationships felt the same way.
The Museum of Innocence is located in central Istanbul and is free to anyone who presents a copy of the book; otherwise admission is 25TL (about 8 euro). The Museum of Broken Relationships is in the old town of Zagreb and costs just 2.5 euro. Both museum are open year-round.