A decade ago, the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” imagined that you could have any relationship that ended in heartbreak erased from your mind. In the film, the central couple, Joel and Clementine, gather all the objects in their homes that make them think of each other and hand them over to the experimental doctor who will zap the memories from their minds.
“After traveling the world, I realized it’s something we all share: the pain of having loved and lost.”
The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, does the opposite. The concept is something akin to saving those objects, putting them on public display, and letting pieces of dead relationships live forever. Each object—donated by a person who’s experienced a relationship falling apart or fading out—has a card explaining what it is, the city it came from, the length of the relationship, and a story submitted by the anonymous donor about how it relates to the relationship. Unlike Joel and Clementine, the exes behind the museum don’t believe failed relationships should be eradicated.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Museum of Broken Relationships is opening an exhibition at Root Division gallery in San Francisco for the second time in six years.
“We were trying to preserve the emotional heritage of past loves, because no one talks about them,” artist Olinka Vištica—who co-founded the museum with her ex-boyfriend, artist Dražen Grubišić—tells me during the installation at Root Division. “Self-help instructions will tell you to forget about everything and be prepared for something new so you get ‘cured.’ But we never thought that our relationship was an illness. So we thought it would be great to preserve something from it, like proof that it ever existed.”
When Vištica and Grubišić were dating, they would both travel to show their individual artwork and, often, they couldn’t go together. So when one of the pair would leave Zagreb, that artist would bring a hopping rabbit wind-up toy and take pictures of it touring a new place. But their four-year relationship ended amicably in 2006, before Bunny could rack up many miles.
This toy got Vištica and Grubišić thinking about what happens to the objects that get left behind after a breakup and about how dead relationships are memorialized. They turned the concept into an installation in a ship container in Zagreb, featuring 40 donated items from broken relationships—“emotional cargo,” Vištica says. (It’s no coincidence their website is brokenships.com.)
Overnight, the story turned into an international sensation, and the exes got messages from people around the world, asking them to bring a similar show to their town. Vištica and Grubišić took the basic concept to different cities internationally, each time requesting that locals donate the objects that most embody their heartbreak. The first U.S. stop was San Francisco’s Root Division gallery for a Valentine’s Day show in 2009, and the exhibition went on to places like London, Taipei, Amsterdam, Mexico City, and Brussels.
“These objects, although of no apparent value, strike a chord in people. You recognize yourself in these stories.”
“After traveling the world, I realized it’s something we all share: the pain of having loved and lost,” Vištica says. “The feeling of having lost something and wanting to give it meaning in your life is universal. What’s different is how we express it. I like the American stories because they’re like watching a movie. You can really picture the characters, and you can feel the plot developing in front of your eyes. In France, the stories tend to be much more abstract.”
Before long, Vištica and Grubišić realized they had enough donated objects to open a permanent museum, which they did in 2010. The location in Zagreb has everything you can imagine: teddy bears, dolls, books, records, wedding dresses, furry handcuffs, old cell phones, and undergarments including bras and panties. Then there are things you might not picture like an ax, a prosthetic foot, and a garden gnome with his nose broken off.
As the show kept touring, the museum gathered more objects from around the globe, nearly 2,000 items to date. On the prep table for its second visit to San Francisco, there’s a sari, a prayer mat with shoes, a bulky Rembrandt art-history book, a dog’s hamburger chew toy, a hand-drawn crossword puzzle, and an awkward handmade “Sweater of Indecision.” One woman even donated a copy of the book “I Can Make You Thin,” a gift from a boyfriend she couldn’t abide. Vištica says the items, which are carefully cataloged in a computer database and presented with dignity, could become a source of anthropological study.
“When I moved out, and across the country, I took the toaster. That’ll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?”
“These objects, although of no apparent value, strike a chord in people,” she says. “What makes the exhibition so special is after a couple of objects, you recognize yourself in these stories and you become an object of your own scrutiny.”
In that way, this museum and exhibition, which might sound lonely, actually ends up connecting people around the world.
“Although the Museum of Broken Relationships might sound depressing, it’s full of hope,” Vištica says. “Here, you see that we all share this human experience and you are not alone. It becomes easier to understand the other person, no matter where he or she lives. The museum takes a visitor on an empathetic journey, which we lack in today’s digital world, where we live so fast and our memories are lost because they’re buried in emails or text messages or Facebook posts. The museum is connected to something that is slower, more nostalgic and melancholic, which is for me a synonym for beautiful.”
While most people assume the Museum of Broken Relationships is all about romance, Vištica says they never intended to make the focus so narrow. In Amsterdam, an Iranian immigrant submitted music from home country she felt disconnected from. Other people have donated objects about living without a parent, about missing the kids they lost custody of in a divorce, or escaping an abusive situation. Objects left behind from war and suicide also have a place in the museum.
“He joined my class in the sixth grade of elementary school. It was love at first sight.”
“Of course, we could curate the exhibitions so that everyone goes home feeling hopeless,” Vištica says. “But we think it’s important to show different facets of love and take the visitor on a roller coaster of emotions. Some of the stories are very sad, and some are full of humor. We try to find the balance and put all the stories into context if it’s possible.”
Vištica and Grubišić’s Bunny, for what it’s worth, didn’t make it to San Francisco this time, but he’s got a permanent home in the Zagreb museum. “He’s old now, so he likes to stay home,” Vištica says. “When we broke up, Bunny didn’t get to travel so much. But thanks to the museum, his dream of traveling the world came true.”
The text describing the "Divorce Day Garden Dwarf" from Slovenia is pure poetry: "He arrived in a new car. Arrogant, shallow and heartless. The dwarf was closing the gate that he had destroyed himself some time ago. At that moment it flew over to the windscreen of the new car, rebounded and landed on the asphalt surface. It was a long loop, drawing an arc of time—and this short long arc defined the end of love." (Courtesy of the Museum of Broken Relationships)
(The Museum of Broken Relationships is on display at Root Division gallery at 1059 Market Street, San Francisco, 2-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, February 11-28, 2015; the touring exhibition will be at Yukon Arts Centre at 300 College Drive, Whitehorse, Canada, from March 5-May 23, 2015. The Yukon Arts Centre is accepting donations for the exhibition until February 19. Visit the permanent Museum of Broken Relationships at Ćirilometodska 2, 10 000 Zagreb, Croatia, open everyday between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Find more information here.)