The Psychology of Collecting

Question: Are museums a Western concept?

Orhan Pamuk: I argue that collecting things is related to -getting attached to things is a universal human reaction to some trouble, trauma, whatever you may call it. In my novel it is of course love, and my infatuated lover is so troubled that he gets attached to things for various reasons. This is more or less the common passion in all collectors. But it is only the Western civilization that put a collector's mania onto a pedestal, because museums were invented in the West.

First there were in the seventh and eighteenth centuries what they called Wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosities to exhibit the power and taste of the princes or the elites or the rich people. Then when the Louvre was converted from a royal palace to a public sphere, a museum, then again it was a place for showing the power and sophistication of the ruling elites. But museums are also places for learning: you put together things, then you categorize and you produce information. Human information is in fact contained in things and the theory about their relationships. Once you put two or three, five objects in an exhibit in a museum, these objects tell a story. You ask yourself if you visit it, what's the relationship between them? And that's a story; that's a theory.

Museums put collectors on pedestal, and making collections, getting attached to things, is not an embarrassing thing once museums legitimize your habit of collecting. But if there are no museums, then your habit of collecting, and also your collections, exhibits only your personal wounds. So I made this distinction towards the end of my "Museum of Innocence," when my character -- after my character decides to exhibits his immense collections that are related to his love. And my character also visits small museums of the world, five thousand of them, perhaps because he likes them. He like the empty, melancholic old museums where no one goes. And I've been to so many of them all over the world just because I like the atmosphere inside, the melancholy atmosphere, the **** of the parquet floor, the museum guides... how sleepy; even they're also impressed that you're here and looking at these objects no one comes for. There you feel the venture of a prince, a rich guy, a sad guy, a poor collector who thought that he would transcend history by his collection, by his objects. But then it's how successful -- no one comes.

You feel that outside there is a time, modern times, that's going on, while inside the museum it's timelessness. These sensations I like. In fact, in the end we write novels because we just like these sensations; we want to immerse ourselves in these images. I like to -- in fact, a part of the novel, or one part of the novel, is that I like, I very much like, to go out to forgotten, neglected museums of the world. And one of the reasons I wrote this novel was just to revisit them, to see them, to talk about them.

As the Nobel laureate explains, there is a very basic human need that stands as the basis of collecting—it allows us to cope with trauma. But in the museums of the western world, this notion has often been lost in the struggle to showcase power and wealth.

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