Two years ago when I was in Turkey I visited The Museum of Innocence, a revolutionary concept conceived by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk as he created the space based on his fiction with the same title. His book tells the story of Kemal, an upper-class man from Istanbul, fell in love with his young cousin Füsun, and decided to obsessively collect everything his beloved has touched. Therefore, the only collection housed inside the museum is of the gigantic amount of seemingly ordinary objects that document this obsessive love and, by extension, remnants of the bygone world in which the story is set in. It was a very different experience from any other museum I’ve ever visited—I didn’t see white walls, famous artworks, or rare antiquities. In his personal manifesto, Pamuk confessed that he is “against precious monumental institutions being used as blueprints for future museums”; instead, museums should “explore and uncover the universe and humanity of the new and modern man”—just like novels, they should speak for individuals. I interpret his statement as somewhat a criticism on the institutionally of museums: museums in the future should remove its own limitations and readily become “of people, by people, for people”.
However, let us take a step back and ask ourselves: why are we still going to museums anyway? I never really thought about that question before taking this class. Simply because history and art are fun to experience? Sure. But as so much technological progress has enabled us to see art whenever and wherever we are, why are we still going to the Smithsonian on a Sunday despite metro’s sporadic weekend hours? Indeed, though many functions of museums are no longer confined within their physical spaces, people still go to museums for something that is not so effortlessly accessible, something so mesmerizing about those white walls and seeing those famous artworks and rare antiquities in person: I believe museums have equipped us with a certain mindset of experiencing and appreciating art, and the point of creating museums is to help people preserve and nourish such mindset. As art could easily lose its meanings when we switch its context, museums grant us a well-constructed safe space to discover this set of meanings on our own. So much so that we do not see art at all once we step out of the museums.
Now let’s go back to Pamuk’s point. While we can certainly celebrate the concept of building a museum that tells the personal stories of individuals—as a matter of fact, we should expect the subjects, the curators, and the audiences of museums to change constantly throughout the time; we can argue whether online, digital museums are eventually going to take over the place of traditional museums. Nonetheless, it is forever going to be a quest for us to cultivate our ability to interpret art whenever, wherever, however we see it. Thousands of cigaret butts smoked by the same woman mounted behind plexiglass have their meanings, while thousands of random cigaret butts scattered across the streets in Istanbul do not—or maybe they do, depending on the context. The question is and will always be, as the boundaries of “what constitutes art spaces” are slowly melting into the thin air, are we still all carrying our compasses with us to explore the uncharted territories ahead?