When relationships fail, this museum keeps the stuff left behind

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Friday, February 23, 2024

When relationships fail, this museum keeps the stuff left behind
An undated photo provided via Museum of Broken Relationships shows items from failed relationships donated from around the world to the Museum of Broken Relationships. (via Museum of Broken Relationships via The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

ZAGREB.- When their relationship ended more than 20 years ago, the time came for Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic to divide up their stuff, including a TV, a computer and a bunch of vacation souvenirs. Then, they got to a toy bunny.

When they were lovers, the two Croatians had a cutesy ritual: When one of them came home, the other would wind up the fluffy rabbit and send it scampering around their house to welcome them. And when either went abroad on a business trip, they would take the white bunny with them and snap photos with it at tourist spots. It was such a symbol of their time together, Vistica said, that she didn’t think either of them should keep it.

At that moment, the pair could have fallen into a bitter argument — but, instead, they had a brain wave: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a place where everyone on the planet could send objects after a breakup?” Vistica recalled thinking. A global archive of failed romances could help couples move on from heartbreak, Vistica said; it would also let them say to the world, “This love existed.”

Today, the former lovers run the Museum of Broken Relationships, one of Croatia’s busiest — and quirkiest — tourist attractions. Located in a former palace in the old town of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, the museum displays objects sourced from heartbroken lovers worldwide alongside text telling each item’s story. The objects’ donors, many of whom send in the objects by mail, are kept anonymous, an attempt to encourage them to be truthful.

The mementos range from the mundane — such as a pair of white dress shoes, which came with a note reading, “She tried to impose her fashion sensibilities on me” — to the emotionally fraught. One exhibit is a parachute rig donated by a woman whose lover died in a skydiving accident.

The museum started out in 2006 as a temporary project that Grubisic and Vistica presented at the Zagreb Salon, an art biennial. The first exhibits were sourced from friends, but once the show ended, the couple said they began receiving emails and calls asking them to present versions of the installation worldwide. Soon, the two were staging pop-up exhibitions in venues including a Californian art gallery and a Turkish shopping mall, and soliciting more donations in each place. When they presented their display in Mexico City, they received hundreds of items and stories.

In 2010, Grubisic and Vistica opened the museum’s permanent home, just down the road from Zagreb’s city hall, a popular wedding venue. The museum’s collection now includes more than 4,000 objects, some 70 of which are on show at a time. Charlotte Fuentes, a curator who looks after the collection and arranges temporary shows abroad, said that new objects arrived by mail each week.

Recently, she said, someone sent her a 37-year-old piece of wedding cake. She put it in a freezer.

“I’m amazed what people will do to try and keep love alive,” Fuentes said.

On a recent tour of the museum, Vistica, Grubisic and Fuentes pointed out some exhibits that originated from far and wide: a bicycle from Belgium, some toy furniture from South Korea and a pair of basketball shoes from Seattle.

Grubisic said that the donated objects often reflected a country’s political or social context. When the museum staged a temporary exhibition in the Philippines, he added, it received “quite a few items about breakups because of migration.” Millions of Filipinos work abroad, Grubisic said, “so there’s a big chance that your loved one will fly to Canada, or Dubai, or somewhere, to work. And then you break up.”

“I’m sure if we created an exhibition in Ukraine,” Grubisic added, “we’d get stories of loss because of the war.”

In that sense, the museum is also a lens into history, which was clear from the project’s earliest days, Vistica said. When they were collecting the very first objects in Zagreb, a former soldier gave them a prosthetic leg.

The soldier said he lost his leg in the 1990s while fighting for Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia. He said that international sanctions made it difficult for him to get a prosthesis, but that eventually, an employee in the Defense Ministry secured the materials to make one. The soldier said that he and his unlikely savior fell in love, but that the false leg lasted longer than the relationship.

“In the beginning, we were worried we’d just get items from summer flings, but the stories soon went deep,” Vistica said. “We’ve got items from the Second World War, about terrorism. Some of it’s heavy,” she added. “But life’s heavy.”

Yet it was the museum’s silliest items that seemed to resonate most with visitors, Grubisic said, including a book called “I Can Make You Thin.” An Englishwoman sent that in, along with a note that began: “This was a present from my ex-fiance. Need I really continue?”

Fuentes said the museum received a lot of bad gifts like that book.

Several items have nothing do with romance and instead recall other types of breakup, like the loss of religious belief or the death of a child. At one point during the recent tour, Vistica pointed to two bras in a display case. A woman said she donated them after a mastectomy, writing that she hoped that parting with them would “enable me to recover the relationship with my body. I’m so impatient for it to happen.”

“We always left the name open, so it’s just the ‘Museum of Broken Relationships’ and doesn’t mention love,” Vistica said. “All relationships are emotional, not just romantic ones,” she added.

Among the more than 70 items on display, perhaps the strangest were some 30-year-old scabs in a petri dish. Fuentes told their story: A biologist was said to have collected them from her first boyfriend so that she could clone him in the event of an accident.

The museum doesn’t receive many body parts in the mail, Grubisic said, but added that a Croatian TV presenter once donated a gallstone. “Her partner was making her so nervous, she said it contributed to the formation of the stone,” he said. “Her story said, ‘This is what he gave me.’”

The TV presenter eventually asked for the gallstone back, Vistica said, and they gave it to her. Now, the museum has a policy of never returning anything, even if a donor reunites with their ex.

Fuentes pointed to an example. In a small glass vitrine were two stones that a couple said they once found on a beach in Denmark: a “he-stone” and a “she-stone,” according to the accompanying note. When the couple split up after a year, one of them sent the pebbles to the museum.

Fuentes said that when they went on display, she emailed the donor to tell him and he wrote back to say the couple had fallen in love again after a seven-year break. He didn’t ask for the items back, Fuentes said. Instead, she added, he wrote how great it was “that people can get back together, and still have things in the Museum of Broken Relationships.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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