The Museum of Broken Relationships lies between Saint Mark’s Church and Saint Catherine’s in Zagreb’s Upper Town. On Saturdays in the Croatian capital, brides and grooms rotate for portraits against these spiritual backdrops, while wedding guests refuel during the happy day with coffee on the terrace of the museum’s well-positioned cafe. Behind the patrons, this innovative exhibition space puts heartache on display.
The idea to gather personal leftovers from breakups came to a former couple of Croatian artists—Olinka Vištica, a film producer, and Dražen Grubišić, a sculptor—upon ending their four-year union. “It’s a metaphorical space to put things behind you but still leave a trace this relationship existed, that it mattered to me,” explains Vištica of the collection which opened in its current home in 2010, becoming the first private museum in Zagreb. The founders’ contribution to the globally-crowdsourced supply of woe is a lifeless wind-up toy rabbit standing in front of his vacation snapshot in a desert near Tehran. It now poses under the placard: “The bunny was supposed to travel the world but never got further than Iran.”
Seemingly mundane objects fill the rooms, but the accompanying original words of the world’s broken-hearted delve deep: A garden gnome squats under the description of its angry flight through the air on the day marking divorce of a 20-year marriage. The last checkbook with both partners’ names sits on a pedestal near a stiletto heel representing a clandestine but memorable encounter between prostitute and client. A letter from first loves parting ways in Sarajevo on the brink of the war that dissolved Yugoslavia memorializes yet another romance that never stood a chance. A tattered flag missing its bottom half waves in the entrance, while the small gift shop offers commissioned work from local designers like bad memory erasers and jewelry stringing shards of broken china.
Pieced together from people around the world, the curated collection reflects diverse perspectives from coming-of-age to family bonds that failed. “We transformed the concept of a museum from that temple about historic things. Museums can be about you and about me. We added some sort of democratic value and introduced love as a tool to learn about the world,” says Vištica, who knew the perfect location–inside the former palace of early 20th century Croatian abstract painter Count Kulmer, right where today’s funicular reaches from Lower Town to the top of the hill surrounded by other city cultural sites.
Yet visiting here touches a uniquely personal but universal level, as Vištica describes: “It’s an intimate experience in a public space, and that’s so rare.” Around one hundred thousand people visited last year, not including traveling exhibitions that juxtaposed the objects against church aisles in Amsterdam or helped the Sami people of remote arctic Norway open up in atypical ways.
With stories considered private, the Museum of Broken Relationships provides a much-needed place to heal. Research under an MRI scanner found that the brains of the heartsick can resemble the brains of those experiencing cocaine withdrawal. Another study, monitoring coping methods of various heartbreak-afflicted foci groups, found that while long-term wallowing is never a great idea, reflecting upon a recent breakup can help speed the healing process.
Honking cars in procession merrily pass by the museum on the way to the next wedding event, while cafe guests come and go. After considering the varied stories inside–from humorous to distraught, romantic or familial–anyone can rehabilitate by leaving a message in the museum guest book, propped in front of a mirror so a person must face oneself. As Vištica says, ”You can always make something of your broken relationship.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions