by Kryssa Burakowski
In the oldest part of the city of Zagreb, just a street away from the iconic roof of St. Mark’s church, you can find the Museum of Broken Relationships. Zagreb does not have a shortage of museums but this one is relatively young and strikingly different; a concept which splinters away from more traditional ideas about what a museum should be and what should be in it.
The museum (initially a travelling exhibition before finding a permanent home in 2010) was founded by two artists a few years after the breaking of their own relationship. At the time of the break-up they had struggled to decide what to do with objects which carried a lot of memories and meaning, joking that they were the sort of thing that belonged in a museum. A few years later they put together an exhibition of just such things. And then it snowballed. The exhibition travelled all around the globe, and wherever it went people felt connections and donated their own items and accompanying stories.
The items on display currently range from the most predictable tokens of affection (a gingerbread biscuit, stuffed toys…) to the more unexpected objects (an axe, toaster or a wifi router). Some are very recent, some are pieces of stories from many years ago about ordinary people caught up in globally significant war and conflict. Donations have travelled from all over the world, including objects from England, other parts of Croatia, the USA, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Japan… More importantly, the museum doesn’t just deal with romantic relationships. Family ties and friendships can be broken too, after all. The museum also invites visitors to contribute, if they wish, to a very large book of confessions. As you enter the current exhibition, large text on the wall explains the ‘mission’ of the project. This suggests that the museum is offering an alternative to the usual destructive narratives surrounding the ending of relationships and indeed the museum does offer the opportunity to take your grief/heartbreak/anger/nostalgia or whatever else you might feel and push it towards a creative project. If you’re interested, you can see examples from the collection at https://brokenships.com/explore.
Of course, the items alone are (for the most part) of little to no value. Nobody would normally be interested in seeing (especially in paying to see) a stuffed Snoopy toy… unless perhaps it was 3017 and it could show the children of the future how primitive toys were in the ancient times… Often it seems that items in museums earn their right to be there through value in terms of money, rarity, historical significance or as educational tools. When it comes to displays of art, although value and age still come in to play, the picture is more complex and subjective. The value of this collection, however, is found not in the items themselves but in the stories attached to them. In this way the museum is reversing certain expectations visitors might have from traditional museums. The Mona Lisa doesn’t really need an accompanying label for visitors to know what it is and why it’s in the Louvre. But here the roles are reversed and the label is most vital.
The museum allows the donors a sense of closure and the visitors a chance to empathise through the shared stories. From a kaleidoscope of scattered fragments of different broken relationships, a pattern emerges that suggests a sort-of unity of human experience. Lots of people go through break ups (of all kinds – not just romantic as the phrase automatically seems to imply) or loss, which cause feelings of detachment and loneliness. When you’re going through the process, it can be easy to forget that other people have been there too. It can also be easy to forget that seemingly mundane items not typically found in museums can have a great deal of emotional value and that the stories that come with them, when shared, can make a strong impact on others.
So, if you’re ever in Zagreb, LA (where there is another museum) or cross paths with one of the travelling exhibitions, check it out – even if only to see how this concept is breaking away from our standard perception of what deserves to be catalogued and presented as ‘worth seeing’.