Imagine if the end of your romantic relationship transformed into the beginning of an artistic relationship that ultimately became a permanent museum. Or two. In the introduction to The Museum of Broken Relationships, Olinka Vištica tells the story of how she and Dražen Grubišić could not bear to discard the objects that once meant so much to their relationship. What began as an installation at a local art festival evolved into thousands of donated objects and their accompanying stories, more than 40 exhibitions around the world, and museums in Zagreb and Los Angeles. From those objects, Vištica and Grubišić chose 203 to feature in the new book, which is appropriately designed to emulate a museum exhibition catalog.
Vištica’s warm, welcoming introduction can be likened to the beginning of a guided tour. Turning the page past the introduction, however, the reader becomes his or her own guide, co-creating meaning with each absent and anonymous other who is responsible for the object being placed in the collection. From the expected and everyday — stuffed animals, vinyl records, love notes — to the more surprising — puppets, breast implants, a jar of Amish pickles — each of these objects carries the weight of meaning invested in it by the people who have donated them to the Museum of Broken Relationships.
Each object is prominently featured on its own page, with a white background and simple black text. In a traditional museum, the description cards are written by a curator and are therefore the interpretation of an outsider. Here, the text is the interpretation of the person who is letting go of the object and letting go of a relationship, a feeling, a past. The captions, which model gallery text, are sometimes confessions, sometimes descriptions, and in some instances addressed to the other partner. Fittingly, those captions that read like letters can be full of love or anger. A gold boxing glove pendant that was a birthday gift from an estranged spouse is donated to the museum with a note that ends, “I truly hope you find what you are looking for. Don’t settle for less than you deserve. Follow your heart. Be happy.” Another birthday gift, from the donor’s first girlfriend, is an X-ray taken after the two were in a car crash. After quoting Barbara’s message written on the X-ray, he simply adds, “That cheap bitch.”
Although most objects in the collection are donated by the person who was left behind rather than the person who left, the dog-collar light representing a 13-year-relationship in Berlin is an exception. He writes that when he told her he was leaving, he agreed that she should take their dog, since he thought she needed the companionship more than he did. Later, she sent a package containing the light, which she bought for the dog “who kept wandering off in the dark winter nights and getting lost. This way, we could always find her.” In his note to the Museum of Broken Relationships, the donors includes a postscript: “Please hang it blinking if you use it in the museum — it reminds me of a heartbeat. The battery can be replaced.” Like love notes more than gallery text, the descriptions of these objects are often heartrending.
Not all relationships end in breakups: some of the most poignant stories are written by those who lost a beloved due to death. A woman from Mexico City cut her hair on the tenth anniversary of her lover’s death and donated her long locks to the Museum of Broken Relationships with a note saying, “The first 10 years of life without you. 1999-2009.” These stories sometimes come as a surprise for a reader who gets too mired in the hurt drawn from anger of dishonesty, infidelity, or the people who simply wreak havoc in the lives of others.
The objects and their stories give the reader cause for contemplation. The desire to reflect on love, pain, and heartbreak is redeeming for Vištica, who writes in the book’s introduction that the constant need to reiterate a perfect life on social media makes it seem as if the difficult, bittersweet side of life has been erased. Yet in the same way that posting cheery photos on Facebook is a performative act, so is contributing to the museum. The performance of transferring ownership of the object is a kind of letting go, whether letting go of what is broken inside or by symbolically sending that brokenness out into the world.
The Museum began in Croatia but became an international phenomenon, with exhibitions presented and objects received from around the world. As a result, looking through the objects is like looking at a travel essay. For many object contributors, the objects represent distance, space, and travel. There are quite a few long distance relationships, as well as relationships in which one person leaves home to join their beloved in a far away and unfamiliar place.
The collection is, of course, uneven. Like any museum, there will be certain items that appeal to certain visitors, and others that fail to attract more than a passing glance. Yet anyone who has loved and lost is likely to find something that resonates in this collection of objects. It’s difficult to imagine reading this book without some pang of familiarity, of sadness, and of joy. So many of these very brief stories are bittersweet. They are also enormous, and these object have been appointed to contain the enormity of both love and loss.