One morning last week I saw the poster for an exhibition in Merkez Han, the luxurious and perfectly air-conditioned building near the end of Istiklal Avenue where the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations is located. "An Innocent City," the poster read, "Modest Musings on Everyday Istanbul."
Modest is not a particularly inviting adjective when used in the title of an exhibition. But as I left the building an hour later, I decided that it was the best word to describe "An Innocent City," an exhibition devoted to stories and illustrations of everyday objects of Istanbul.
The first things you see upon entering the exhibition space are two sets (one in Turkish, the other in English) of Orhan Pamuk's books: "Museum of Innocence," his latest novel, and "The Innocence of Objects," the exhibition catalogue published by Abrams Books. They had guided a group of graduate students from Koç University who visited Pamuk's museum in Istanbul's Çukurcuma neighborhood to pick their favorite objects and search for them in modern day Istanbul.
One student picked a clock - another decided that the fish was the most interesting object in the museum. They searched in their local neighborhoods and observed the kinds of lives these objects are living today.
Curated by Ian Alden Russell and designed by Ayse Karamustafa, "An Innocent City" began with a simple question: "How to create your own modest musings?" The curator advised his students to answer this question in eight simple steps: go to a museum, find an object in the collection that speaks to you, listen to the object, find other objects like it in your neighborhood, follow them, listen to their stories, write down your story of following the object through the city, share it with friends and family and your local community. "Whenever I go to a new city for work, I try to find an author who is known for capturing the sense of the city," Russell told me. "I find that reading such novels before or during a trip enriches the experience of a new place as you connect characters and stories to the places you encounter on your journey.
I first visited the Museum of Innocence in the summer of 2012, shortly after it opened. I had read the novel, but I found that others who were visiting the museum were visiting because they had heard about the museum but had not read the novel. I became interested in the experiences of these visitors, wondering how they viewed the objects in the cases and what stories they felt the objects told. I felt it was important to document and share these stories the everyday objects in the cases tell about life in Istanbul and Turkey today."
In 2013 Russell met with the director of the museum, Esra Aysun, and the first seeds for what is on exhibit today were planted. "The 12 objects were chosen by the graduate students in my 'Designing Heritage' course," Russell said. "The prompt I gave them was to visit the Museum of Innocence and find a few objects in the cases that speak to you. We then sat as a group to consider some 30 or more objects, finding which objects were the ones with which most of us shared connections and about which we were passionate. The 12 objects shown here are the objects that had the most shared resonance across our group, so in a way, these are the everyday things that knit us together as a one, ephemeral community within the city today."
My favorite object in the exhibition was the soda bottle. "It's just soda, right?" asks Jenna, who picked it for her artistic journey. "I was intrigued by the variety of brands and flavors available." She located bottles of Nigde, Ankara,Uludag and Çamlıca before discovering Avam Kahvesi in Cihangir, which offers a menu with over 30 different soda varieties.
Search for Istanbul's kagıt helva (spa wafers) reserves led the researchers to delicious experiences. A student went all the way to Emirgan and found the desired object "in the crowded and busy" Sütis. "This city has changed socially, economically and politically, but you can still come to Emirgan on a Sunday afternoon and eat a dondurmalı kagıt helva (spa wafer with icecream). While Turkey and Istanbul live through tremendous
change, they hold on to some moments of tradition."
But the exhibition features not only objects and texts that describe their place in Istanbul's life today. Russell has also installed an iPad on the stand devoted to a handkerchief.
While reading about the differences between tissues and handkerchiefs and how Turkish pupils at primary schools had to bring the latter to class every day, I listened to popular and classic Turkish songs about handkerchiefs, including Zeki Müren's "Al Mendilim Sakla Benden Yadigar" and Safiye Ayla's "Sallasana Mendilini.". The playlist also included more cheerful songs, like "Unut Beni" by Cem Karaca and "Mendil" by Hande Yener.
"The objects that are on loan for the exhibition are from people and places from Sarıyer to Eminönü," Russell said. "There are a few that came from closer to the site of the exhibition, and I believe this echoes how the central neighborhoods of Istanbul are those that most in our city share, either by living there, visiting, or commuting through in their daily lives."
A classic tea glass is on loan from Yasin, who works at 1453 Cafe in Beyoglu's Hazzopulo Pasajı. Meanwhile, a handsome hairpin is on loan from Gözde, a student who resides in Sarıyer. Last but not least, a cologne bottle had been purchased from Ramazan, who works at Istanbuli Shop at the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarsısı) in Eminönü.
While curating the exhibition, Russell wondered what would happen "if more people in our city were to be empowered and moved to make their own museums of their everyday lives." He said that this had the potential to "widen the conversation about how we compose and present history in Istanbul to reach a greater audience and involve the public more actively in the making of these exhibitions and stories."
Heading for the exit door, I came across postcards where visitors are invited to write about their own experiences. "During my college years when relationships were unstable and sometimes fleeting, I'd often leave a hairpin on his desk to feel like a part of me would stay with him, and perhaps return," wrote one visitor. Those words are in perfect harmony with the spirit of melancholy and innocence that color this happily modest exhibition.
Until Sept. 3, 2014, in the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations, Istiklal Avenue No: 181 Merkez Han 34433 Beyoglu