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Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: A Novel Idea

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on February 25, 2013 in Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic |

I love novels. I hope to publish one someday. I read them constantly. I use the margins to write notes cheering characters on, or chastising them for behaving badly. I give novels to friends. I organize them on shelves first alphabetically, then when that gets boring thematically, then yet again by cover color, height, or number of pages.

So when I read that Turkish novelist and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk had created a museum based around his novel The Museum of Innocence, I was deeply fascinated.

Pamuk’s novel revolves around two lovers – Kemal and Füsun – who cannot get married. To ease his pain Kemal begins collecting everything Füsun has touched, creating a museum dedicated to his lost love. (Thankfully the spoilers end there. I’ve not yet read the book. It’s behind three others on my reading list.)

While he was writing, Pamuk was also collecting to create his own museum and he discovered some interesting things. While combing through flea markets in Istanbul and, later, other non-Western cities, he found that people tend to want the same objects. Whether you live in the USA, St. Petersburg, Rio de Janeiro or somewhere else, objects like baseball cards, teacups, old keys and antique matchboxes are the center of personal, private and prized collections. 

Where others might calls this desire to own specific knick-knacks an emerging market, Pamuk calls this trend emerging humanities. What people collect and why is deeply personal, but also reveals quite a bit about the human condition. We tend to agree that museums should collect certain kinds of objects, and yet what we collect on our own is often very, very different. What is it about polished rocks, or lighters or miniature cars that holds sway with us, but yet are “unworthy” of being collected by museums? If they are so deeply important to us as individuals, why don’t we think they are deeply important to our cultural institutions? We often look for cultural difference, but what if you look closely, it’s easier to find cultural sameness.

Pamuk makes a great point: it’s one thing to see a painting of George Washington. It’s completely different to see Elvis Presley’s recipe for his favorite peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich. One of these things you naturally relate to more, as a person; You want to know why he liked that sandwich. You sort of want to taste it.

There is another angle of Pamuk’s projects that interests me as well; the idea that people learn in different ways. While writing his novel, Pamuk collected things as Kemal did. He imagined what Füsun used, touched and ate, and developed his novel using items from his personal collection. And then he put them on display. Friends asked Pamuk why he did this. His response:

“…I also felt the need to point out that while novels appeal to our verbal imagination, art and museums stimulate our visual imagination; the novel and the museum were therefore concerned with entirely different sides of the same story. …What triggers the creative mind, in art as in literature, is not just the will to transmit the energy of ideas, but also a desire to engage physically with certain issues and objects.”

So you don’t like to read? Great! Check out the exhibit. Can’t bop over to Istanbul to see the Museum of Innocence in person? Fantastic! Read the book. I have had the privilege of having a Pamuk experience as a child when I read E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This book introduced me to The Met, informed my first tour of the museum, and is one of my most beloved novels on the shelf.

So you can see why this idea strikes me as a foolproof sort of plan. What if museums were more like novels? What if we wrote novels about our museums? How would our exhibits, collections, and audience change? Let me know what you think in the comments!

To read more about Orhan Pamuk’s novel and museum, check out this Newsweek article.

And because I know you’re curious, here is the recipe for Elvis Presley’s sandwich.

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