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Museum of Broken Relationships

Museum of Broken Relationships

July 16, 2012 6:07 amComments are Disabled

The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb is just what it sounds like: a museum that documents the story of broken relationships and lost loves. It is a small exhibition, with only 5 or 6 rooms, but its size is reflective of its intimacy, as guests come from all over the world–it’s a traveling exhibition as well–to gaze on the fragmented pieces of private romances.

On the informational cards accompanying each piece in the exhibition are not the contributor’s name, as in many museums, but the place and timespan of the relationship. Belgrade, 1993 – 1997. Singapore, 2000 – 2001. Rome, 1975 – 1985. Some of these relationships whose stories we pour over had lasted for one month; other, 30 or more years, but they all have something in common: a deep and intimate romantic connection broken forever. The skeletal remains of these lost loves are what are on display here: ordinary objects of life marked forever: a house key, a doll, a pair of boots, a dress, a bag of olive pits. These objects carry no meaning on their own, but are infused with emotional power due to the turmoil they have inflicted. Some of them are objects of devotion. Others, objects of betrayal. They all share their stories.

One card next to a faded silver watch:

The first time my ex told me he loved me, he took off my watch and pulled the pin out to mark the time he said it. After that I could never bring myself to push it back in or wear it again. But if I had known then that he was really only ever going to steal my time, I would have pushed it back in and walked away instead of waiting too many years for my life to start again.

September 2002 – May 2005
Bloomington, Indiana.

The stories are shared of hope, of pain, of joy and of suffering. There is a red coat given by a man to his girlfriend before she left him and returned it. There is a love letter that was never sent, and upon the breakup was glued to a glass mirror and then shattered. There is a broken window from a fight. A pair of fuzzy handcuffs. A head massager. A love note from an Italian to an American with a map of Italy drawn freehand with places to visit together.

Some of the stories are long, other short. Some are personal to the point of embarrassment, others abstract and vague. Some are bitter. A frisbee is labeled “Darling, should you ever get a ridiculous idea to walk into a cultural institution like a museum for the first time in your life, you will remember me. At least have a good laugh (the only thing you could do on your own).” One exhibition is a filmed testimony of a very old Croatian woman recounting her 1942 love affair with a Serbian soldier during the war. Afterwards, he got married and she emigrated to America, but she turned a gold coin he gave her as a present into her wedding ring. I wonder if her husband ever knew. The exhibit mentioned he had died 20 years ago. One exhibit reads, “This key to your apartment was one of the many small, spontaneous gifts you gave me. I never knew why you never wanted to sleep with me, until you died of AIDS.”

It is appropriate that few visitors to this museum are in couples. The individual women and men scanning the exhibits do so silently and alone. Perhaps nothing brings the power of the museum into greater relief than the contrast between the shattered fragments of relationships past and the people who absorb them, criticize them, cry over them, and pick up and move on. The shattered mirrors and formerly embraced gifts are symbols of every relationship, and thus touch every witness to their former pain or glory. They tell a specific story but a universal one, and might relieve the victims of recently dissolved romances that they are not alone.

I have been to many a culture museum in my travels, in virtually every capital. A museum of Welsh culture. Of Mongolian culture. Of Chinese culture. Of Peruvian culture. I am not a fan of culture museums. Far from emphasizing the unique, the culture museum plays on romanticist and cliché notions of the society: the “typical” dress, the “traditional” songs. By compartmentalizing the “unique” aspects of a culture, the culture museum specifically excludes the inherent diversity in all cultures, the pull of the past against the future, the mixing of old and new, and the inevitable mingling of peoples and ethnicities that does not lend itself to clean cut notions of “tradition.” Culture museums bring out the worst in identity politics. Instead from extolling the virtues of a society, they often betray its limitations, for the story of a culture cannot possibly be complete without the convergence of arbitrarily defined cultures from others, and yet the museum attempts to make the cultural narrative a circumscribed ethnography, a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. Real culture is not frozen in time; real culture is in the now. The immigrants selling water bottles at the entrance to the culture museum say more about the culture of the society than the museum itself.

What makes the Museum of Broken Relationships precisely the opposite of a culture museum is that it seeks to tell a real story, a story unbounded by arbitrary or historically accidental divisions. The story is shared by most, if not all, cultures. Thus, the Museum of Broken Relationships might be the best cultural museum in Zagreb, if not the world, because it tells a story of culture that transcends the traditional bounds of culture. This “super-culture” is more important than the individual ethnographic vignettes that pose as tradition in culture museums around the world. Says the museum, “Our societies oblige us with our marriages, funerals, and even graduation farewells, but deny us any formal recognition of the demise of a relationship, despite its strong emotional effect.” The museum is a testament to our shared human emotional roller coaster, the moments where all seems lost and sometimes the smallest slights provoke the strongest feelings of resentment or, sometimes, reminiscent fondness. And it is unlike any other museum in that the story it tells is not a story of the past, not a segmented or forgotten moment in time. The story it tells is a story of the present, and a story of the future.

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