Over 19 years, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, has amassed more than 4,000 items: watches, stiletto shoes, espresso machines, self-empowering books, wedding gowns, angry dolls, axes, and breast implants. They’re all items that left a severe mark on the hearts of the people who donated them. Now, they’re displayed for all to see in a 10,000-square-foot baroque palace in Zagreb’s Gornji Grad, or Upper Town — a historic hilltop neighborhood of charming little cobblestone streets.
The collection began in 2004, when Dražen Grubišić, a prolific visual artist, and Olinka Vištica, an arts producer, broke up. Afterward, Grubišić found himself trapped by an object that still held emotional value: a toy bunny that he and Vištica had each left with the other while traveling abroad. How would they deal with the bunny post-breakup?
“I have always found burning and destroying objects barbaric,” Grubišić says. Apparently, so had Vištica. The former lovers talked about creating a place where items like their bunny could rest in peace — and where these cast-off artifacts would be treated like found art. In 2006, they put up an exhibition in a shipping container in the garden of a Zagreb art museum, containing items donated by residents of the Croatian capital. The exhibition made quite an impression. Soon, boxes filled with objects and stories started coming their way, often from beyond Zagreb. Popularity planted the idea in their minds of creating a permanent museum. In 2010, the Museum of Broken Relationships opened its doors.
Visitors wind through seven rooms, each with a poetic title, such as “Body of evidence,” “Archaeology of the heart,” and “The doors we dare not open.” Smaller museum items are displayed in cases along the walls; others are placed atop boxes.
Now, broken-hearted lovers can ship their romantic memento and its accompanying story directly to Zagreb. So can anyone with a token of a lost platonic relationship. The donations are typically anonymous. “People have donated items related to war, family, breakup with religion, or breakup with profession,” Grubišić tells me over coffee in the cozy cafe inside the museum. The collection includes a love letter that a 13-year-old boy wrote during the Bosnian war — but never gave — to Elma, a “blonde and incredibly cute” girl whom he met while their families fled Sarajevo in a car convoy.
Most of the museum’s items carry the emotional weight of failed romance. Breakups are hard. Donors’ sarcasm and outright bitterness ricochet across many of the exhibited items. Strolling through the museum, I notice a beautiful, azure Frisbee titled the “Stupid Frisbee.” The description begins: “a stupid Frisbee, bought in a thrift store, was my ex-boyfriend’s brilliant idea — as a second anniversary gift.” The donor, who did not appreciate the gift or the ex, describes the donated Frisbee as “expelled negative energy.”
“People want so badly to have closure or a sense of finality, and sometimes it just doesn’t exist.”Elizabeth Glowacki, a health communication professor at Northeastern University
People often long for closure at the termination of a relationship. Some psychologists say that’s because the brain needs a narrative to make sense of what happened and prevent us from repeating the same faulty relationship patterns in the future. Therein lies the premise of the museum: In addition to curating romantic pasts, it also wants to help us reckon with them emotionally.
“Humans are messy, and relationships are messy and complex,” says Elizabeth Glowacki, a health communication professor at Northeastern University. “People want so badly to have closure or a sense of finality, and sometimes it just doesn’t exist.”
To move on from a bad experience, Glowacki says, we may want to shift our focus from compulsively seeking closure for the past to improving ourselves going forward: taking up new hobbies, forging new relationships, and rekindling old ones with family members or friends.
Still, she doesn’t deny that mailing something to Zagreb might help. Glowacki calls the Museum of Broken Relationships a nice illustration of personal attempts to get closure. “You have a concrete, tangible item you can see, and touch, and feel,” she says. And the descriptions that accompany the artifacts are full of catharsis. “Writing is powerful and journaling [is] very helpful for people who are trying to cope and articulate feelings,” she says.
The description next to a toy hamburger from Differdange, Luxembourg, is poignant: “His dog left more traces behind than he did.” The text accompanying a rusty key bottle opener from Ljubljana, Slovenia, is heartbreaking: “You talked to me of love and presented me with small gifts every day; this is just one of them,” it reads. “The key to the heart. You turned my head; you just did not want to sleep with me. I realized just how much you loved me only after you died of AIDS.” Whether it be sadness at the finality of death or bitterness at time wasted with a partner deemed unworthy in hindsight, maybe the words tagging along with the objects can wash away some of the sentiment suffocating the person.
The Museum of Broken Relationships also helps the heartbroken with a more modern problem: What to do with digital mementos of a former relationship. You can easily take down the blissfully toothy vacation picture of you and your ex from your wall, and think you’re done with them, until one day — PING! — the same picture pops up on Facebook.
So donors can send digital belongings to the museum as well: pictures, videos, chat histories, social media posts, metadata, and text messages. Each donation joins the museum’s database and depository, where it will wait until it is curated for permanent display, a touring exhibition, or another project. Donors can even time-lock their digital possession for a chosen period so that no one can see it until they’re ready. The digital collection is part of a collaboration between the museum and researchers with the “Materialising Memories” project, which studies how technology can support remembering. (Other work by Materialising Memories researchers includes advice on navigating digital breakups, from managing Facebook feeds to untangling streaming-service passwords.) The museum also maintains a website where anyone can scroll through a digital collection of stories that its online community has pinned on the map.
Still, there’s something especially compelling about seeing real-life artifacts in a dramatic physical space. The museum’s building once belonged to a baronial family named Kulmer, and its Baroque legacy is still there in the dome-shaped ceilings of the corridors that connect the vividly named rooms. Before sparkling white walls, visitors study texts that explain the romantic symbolism behind glittery high heels, an old bicycle, a blue parachute, a “toaster of vindication,” a Galileo thermometer, and a brown-haired action figure missing a palm.
The museum does not shy away from cheekiness. On the day I visited, a well-groomed man carefully read the description next to a vibrator donated by a woman in Bloomington, Indiana. Her boyfriend gave her the vibrator because they didn’t want to have sex until they got married. They kept their promise and married four years later, had a “beautiful child,” and divorced seven years down the line because they “didn’t click sexually.” “It took me a long time to realize how much good sex matters,” the woman concluded. A smile formed on the gentleman’s face as he moved to the next item on display.
The museum’s contents prove that any item can be important, at least to somebody, given the right associations. What looks like a petrified roach wing placed upon the petrified body of a wasp turns out to be “Twenty-seven-year-old Crust from a Wound of My First Love,” donated by someone from Mürzzuschlag, Austria. When a scab fell off a loved one recovering from a 1990 motorbike accident, the donor kept it, “with the (not so serious) idea that in case of need I could have him cloned.” It may be the only organic matter on display at the museum. More obviously sentimental is the “Plush Snoopy,” given to a woman on her 17th birthday by a husband who, 30 years and three sons later, told her he was in love with another woman.
Finality may be an illusion. Closure may come, or not. And sometimes one bad relationship still leads to other good ones. Maybe the “Forget-Me-Not” — a chubby porcelain doll with orange cheeks, wearing a checkered salopette and black sandals — can illustrate this better. The donor, from Helsinki, Finland, offered it to the museum with this note:
“My first true love. We got together just before we started our studies and we became adults together. We studied and lived together, and then finally realized that we had different expectations for the future. We separated quite suddenly without saying goodbye properly. Six months after the separation, I got this doll from his parents as a Christmas present, together with a letter explaining that the doll’s name is Forget-Me-Not and that they hope I will never forget them. They were always so good to me and I really loved them. I have not forgotten. And I never will.”