Istanbul’s new museum manifesto
Istanbul’s Museum of Innocence houses a collection of cultural and daily life artefacts from the 1970s to the 2000s. (AFP/GettyImages)
Orhan Pamuk is not only Turkey's most famous living novelist. The Nobel Prize laureate and author responsible for the bestselling books My Name is Red, Snow and The Black Book also turned museum curator in April 2012, opening The Museum of Innocence, a one-of-a-kind attraction in the centre of Istanbul. Located in a 19th-century townhouse in Çukurcuma, an up-and-coming neighbourhood a short walk from the city’s main shopping thoroughfare İstiklâl Caddesi, the museum is intended to be a companion piece to the novel of the same name that Pamuk published in 2008.
Inside, the cabinets act as a catalogue of the thousands of original objects that Pamuk collected from antique stores and markets located in Istanbul to help plot his novel and chart his obsessive love story between upper class Kemal Basmacı and his second cousin Füsun The displays, which are created from an assortment of sepia photographs, classic film posters from the golden age of Turkish cinema, detailed maps and a variety of Turkish memorabilia, are a tribute to the writer’s hometown and a chronicle of Istanbul’s seismic growth over the past 30-odd years. In a rather smart twist, the 83 exhibits complement each chapter chronologically as the characters -- and the city -- develop and mature from the 1970s to the 2000s.
It is a wonderfully conceited idea to bring the pages of a novel to life, but the building is also the closest thing Istanbul has to a bona fide modern history museum. At an ideological level, the museum is symptomatic of a current trend in Istanbul -- new museums, exhibition spaces and art galleries that come with a twist. While most visitors to the city make a beeline to the Ottoman-era Topkapı Palace Museum or the Byzantine Hagia Sophia museum (both located a stone’s throw from the iconic minarets of the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet), those who visit Istanbul’s more creative museums gain an insight into where the city is going, rather than where it has been.
To see this for yourself, walk through the streets neighbouring the Museum of Innocence – an area known for its bountiful antique and junk stores – to get a glimpse into a side of Pamuk’s glorified Istanbul of the 1970s and ‘80s that is fast disappearing. Turkish men sit in street cafes and kebab outlets such as Çukurcuma Köftecisi, drinking traditional sweet tea from thimble-size glasses and playing backgammon; their wives hanging out the washing in the dilapidated apartments above. From Çukurcuma, make your way up the steep hill Yeniçarşı Caddesi, to the Ara Café (Tosbaĸa Sokak 2, off Yeniçarşı Caddesi; 0-212-245-4105), a museum and restaurant dedicated to the life and work of Turkey's most celebrated photographer, Ara Guler. Larger than life black and white prints of Istanbul from the 1930s and 1940s frame the walls – there are evocative shots of overcrowded Bosphorus ferries and gnarly fishermen on the Galata Bridge – and it is a great place to refuel with a strong Turkish coffee or a freshly-pressed lemonade. Ara Guler is the owner; if you are lucky, you may spot him when he discreetly pops in for a simple traditional lunch of white cheese, olives and crusty bread.
A five-minute walk south back along İstiklâl Caddesi takes you to SALT Beyoğlu, one of Istanbul’s most offbeat cultural spaces, which debuted on the city’s arts scene in 2011. Housed in a beautiful mansion built in 1860, the 1,130sqm, three-level exhibition space is home to ever-changing modern art exhibitions and workshops mixing architecture, design, urbanism, and social and economic history. Recently, it featured a major retrospective on multidisciplinarian Egyptian Hassan Khan.
If that is not enough of a cultural overload, climb aboard the nearby Tünel funicular that rattles up and down Galata hill from Tünel to Karaköy. From the base station you can visit SALT’s new sister museum, SALT Galata, located in the shadow of the medieval Galata Tower, a five minute journey by foot at the bottom of the hill. The building was originally designed to house the original Ottoman Bank, but now it is a gigantic modern art research centre, cafe, bookstore and auditorium where the city’s art crowd regularly hangs out, enjoying talks, events, film screenings and contemporary art exhibitions