A Modest Manifesto for Museums


We’ve been swept away by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence and in our parallel reading have discovered his fascinating Innocence of Objects, that describes his inspiration behind writing the book and creating the actual museum.

For a writer (who had previously hoped to be an artist) to develop a fictional love story alongside building a museum of objects his protagonists would have used, is a mammoth task. And it took him over ten years to piece this all together. But with the book released in 2008 and his museum which opened in 2012 currently located in the Çukurcuma neighborhood in Istanbul, we can only be romanced by the delicate narrative he has crafted from found objects and the memories that surround them.

Museum of Innocence: Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence 1

But more fascinating is the Modest Manifesto for Museums he wrote in the Innocence of Objects. An ardent supporter of back-alley museums, flea markets and collections that tell the stories of individuals and not nations, here we reproduce Pamuk’s manifesto on what museums should imbibe –

A Modest Manifesto for Museums

I love museums and I am not alone in finding that they make me happier with each passing day.

I take museums very seriously, and that sometimes leads me to angry, forceful thoughts. But I do not have it in me to speak about museums with anger. In my childhood there were very few museums in Istanbul. most of these were historical monuments or, quite rare outside the Western world, they were places with an air of a government office about them.

Later, the small museums in the backstreets of European cities led me to realize that museums – just like novels- can also speak for individuals.

That is not to understate the importance of the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Topkapi Palace, the British Museum, the Prado, the Vatican Museums – all veritable treasures of humankind. But I am against these precious monumental institutions being used as blueprints for future museums.

Museums should explore and uncover the universe and humanity of the new and modern man emerging from increasingly wealthy non-Western nations. The aim of big, state-sponsored museums, on the other hand, is to represent the state. This is neither good nor an innocent objective.

Museum of Innocence: Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence 3

I would like to outline my thoughts in order:

Large national museums such as the Louvre and the Hermitage took shape and turned into essential tourist destinations alongside the opening of royal and imperial palaces to the public. These institutions, now national symbols, present the story of the nation – history, in a word – as being far more important than the stories of individuals. This is unfortunate because the stories of individuals are much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity.

We can see that the transitions from palaces to national museums and from epics to novels are parallel processes. Epics are like palaces and speak of the heroic exploits of the old kings who lived in them. National museums, then should be like novels; but they are not.

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.

Demonstrating the wealth of Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Iranian or Turkish history and culture is not an issue – it must be done, of course, but it is not difficult to do. The real challenge is to use museums to tell, with the same brilliance, depth and power, the stories of the individual human beings living in these countries.

The measure of a museums’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, a nation or company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.

It is imperative that museums become smaller, more individualistic, and cheaper. This is the only way that they will ever tell stories on a human scale. Big museums with their wide doors call upon us to forget our humanity and embrace the state and its human masses. This is why millions outside the Western world are afraid of going to museums.

The aim of present and future museums must not be to represent the state, but to re-create the world of single human beings – the same human beings who have labored under ruthless oppression for hundreds of years.

The resources that are channeled into monumental, symbolic museums should be diverted to 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.

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.

Monumental buildings that dominate neighborhoods and entire cities do not bring out our humanity, on the contrary, they quash it. Instead, we need modest museums that honor the neighborhoods and streets and the homes and shops nearby, and turn them into elements of their exhibitions.

The future of museums is inside our own homes.’

Museum of Innocence: Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence 5

Inspiring words by Pamuk, that make us rethink the way we approach museums. Are we playing tourist, or do we really want to get under the skin of a particular time and history?

And if you’re looking to make a start in the direction Pamuk thinks we should take, there’s a Museums Mile Showoff at the Bloomsbury Festival tomorrow that we’re hoping to attend. This is your chance to hear experts in the field give you their perspective on what museums are doing right, one voice at a time.


Excerpt borrowed with thanks from Orhan Pamuk’s The Innocence of Objects, published by Abrams.
Images courtesy http://www.theguardian.com. Click for captions.

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