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Museum of Broken Relationships

Museum of Broken Relationships

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.

July 16, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Thoughts on Visiting the Warsaw Rising Museum

Thoughts on Visiting the Warsaw Rising Museum

Because I have Jewish heritage it is only natural for me to have been inundated from birth with stories of the Holocaust, and of course it is only natural for me to have heard of the crimes of the non-Jewish witnesses of this 20th century horror. As my family was at Auschwitz and most lost their lives there, Poland and the Polish people have occupied a particular place in my family’s historial memory, as attested to by questions my older family members have posed rhetorically: “Why did the Poles send their neighbors to their deaths? Why did the Poles allow Hitler to kill 2-3 million Polish Jews? Why were they complicit in mass murder?” And of course, it is very easy to engage in the same sort of factionalism and national hatred that has characterized so many brutal regimes, for the same reasons: we seek someone to blame, someone proximate, someone whose better human nature may have prevented them from engaging in evil but who somehow went down the wrong path. This may be natural, but I don’t think it is right. It is much like blaming a rape victim for her travesty; after all, her presence and gender was a prerequisite for her attack. But the history of the Poles in World War II is on the whole more complicated than a Nazi historiographer or Jewish victim would like to see. I am reminded of that scene from the Israeli documentary “Antisemitism,” where a bunch of Israeli teenagers visiting Warsaw encounter some old Poles. The old Poles try to communicate innocently, but the Israelis think they are being antisemitic (of course, with the benefit of translators, we know that they are not). The scene is supposed to make us think about this Jewish-Polish divide, this hatred that has seemingly existed for decades, even though the reality of the history makes it so much harder to believe in this feud.

In recently reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands–a history of the lands between Hitler and Stalin in World War II–what has amazed me was not what I knew from my laser-focused, self-interested history of the war–deportations of Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Belarussian Jews to their deaths–but what I didn’t know. Mass starvations in eastern Europe predicated by Stalin’s obsession with national collectivism, as Hitler’s ideology of racial purity de facto sentenced millions of non-German, and non-Jewish, nationalities to their deaths. Bloodlands gave me a first detailed look into the history of Poland under the Nazis, and it is not a pretty picture.

Poland’s history is a history of a homeland savaged, conquered, destroyed, raped, pillaged, and chopped up by both Hitler and Stalin. As one force came in from the east and the other from the west, the Poles had nowhere to run and hide and millions of them were butchered like cattle. After being invaded, no one came to Poland’s aid. One million Poles died in the defense of the homeland and another million as prisoners of war–executed by Hitler and Stalin as their unforgiving pincers closed in on Warsaw. The British and French declared war on Germany but it took 6 years to liberate Poland herself. The Polish government in exile pleaded for an earlier intervention but to no avail. In those 6 years, the Nazis and Soviets butchered Poland, an ideological and political enemy for so many reasons on both sides: it was independent, Catholic, diverse, possessed former German or Russian territory, capitalistic and industrialist, a breadbasket, and free. They were the prize of Eastern Europe and their defeat heralded the symbolic triumph of [National] Socialism.

When I visited Warsaw in October I had the opportunity to see the Rising Museum, a testament to the Polish uprising against the Nazis (and later the Soviets), and in general of 15 years of terror in Warsaw from the invasion of Germany to the “relaxation” of Soviet control in the mid-50’s. Poland especially was so brutalized, so raped, by the combined German and Soviet regimes that it is no wonder that Poles today feel a sense of pride in their country’s ability to rebuild and reclaim what was lost. This pride, and the horrors of the past, come to life in the Rising Museum, and especially so for me, for as a Jew, I was struck with an incredible sense of connection–not disparagement–with the Polish people after seeing the suffering, humiliation and bouts of mass murder that the Poles themselves faced at the hands of the Nazis. The Poles, like the Jews, were stripped of their national heritage. Intelligentsia and priests were butchered by both Stalin and Hitler–the former to empower the proletariat and the latter to pacify resistance (which obviously didn’t work). Catholic institutions like Churches and orphanages were burned to the ground with people inside. Mental hospital patients were butchered by the thousands.

In Warsaw, the Rising itself only came about because the Soviets had reached the edge of the city and the Poles believed their resistance would be saved. Instead, the Soviets looked on callously as their one-time German allies put the Rising down and slaughtered its participants. In one day, one Nazi general executed 70,000 Poles. On the Soviet side, Poles were rounded up by three-men execution tribunals (troikas) who sentenced people to death for participation in the resistance (which had not really existed against the Soviets) and they were shot within 3 hours of being sentenced in a choreographed show of summary justice. Polish communists were shot for being Poles, and Polish Soviets were shot for not being communists. In one town, a troika took a phone book and sentenced everyone with a Polish sounding name to death. The troikas would murder 300 people per day, with the same painstaking record keeping characteristic of the Nazi regime. In Warsaw, especially, Poles were rounded up by the thousands. The very existence of the Jewish ghetto was predicated on the forced deportation of thousands of Poles who lived in that quarter of the city–most of whom no doubt were executed as well.

It is very easy to look at the history of Jews in Poland and blame the Poles, but the politics of mass murder go beyond neighborly betrayal. The Nazis viewed Poles and Jews as animals, and like animals we were expected to scramble an compete for survival, every child, every last scrap of food. It is not surprising that the animosity felt by our Jewish ancestors exists, but we must be careful to leave their hatred a the door of open inquiry.

On a secondary note, the museum also made me reminiscent of other museums of national suffering, in particular the apartheid museum in Johannesburg, which I have also written about.

January 13, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

The apartheid museum presents itself as an attempt to educate and renew, not to shock and horrify.  It stands in stark contrast to museums which chronicle other instances of human suffering such as the Holocaust and slave museums;  the Apartheid Museum is designed to provide a path backwards into history, yet simultaneously put history in the present.  It cannot properly be called a post-apartheid museum because its goal is to preserve the memory of apartheid and its living history.  It is a museum of current events as much as it is a museum of the past.  It is a commentary on the present.

The Apartheid Museum presents a barren face and an optimistic interior, perhaps an attempt to recapitulate the horrors of apartheid against a backdrop of renewal and reconciliation.  Emotionless concrete pillars frame the entrance, tall, cold—yet symbolically representative of the pillars of the new South Africa.  Visitors are immediately forced into arbitrary apartheid-era categories of “white” and “non-white” and enter one of two doorways of the museum accordingly.  These first divided entrances are enclosed, claustrophobic, caged, lined with a mosaic of identity cards, an imposing presence of a system of classification and serialization:  Cape Coloured.  Malay.  Manlik.  Vronlik.  Republick van Suid-Afrika.  It is a direct assault on the visitor’s sense of comfort.  There is no escape.  And then the paths merge.

Aside from this first division, the museum embarks on a process of non-racialism, an attempt to explain apartheid without resorting to revisionist, emotionally charged or explosive history.  Visitors are presented with what can only be called an effort at completeness and accurateness—thus, unlike the District Six museum in Cape Town, or the Voortrekker Monument from the other side, the Apartheid Museum makes an effort, in theory, to address the foundational political and economical issues surrounding apartheid, and not merely to extract outrage from its visitors.  This is not to say the museum is emotionally lacking.  But the presentation of exhibits within the museum space allow for discussion, controversy, and emotion without imposing a nationalist, anti-Afrikaner or other agenda; it documents and presents.

That being said, a couple of biases and omissions were apparent in the presentation.  The museum seems to have a heavy pro-ANC bias, and pays little attention to the struggle of the PAC, SACP and other groups against apartheid.  Most notably, the struggle of black activists is presented almost in the complete absence of references to colored and white activists.  The liberation struggle is framed as an opposition to the National Party and only the National Party—thus, a lot of attention is paid to apartheid-era footage of government officials, propaganda from filmmakers reminiscent of Birth of a Nation recalling the Great Trek and the Voortrekker Monument, and facist constructionist films regarding the rise of the Afrikaner right and the nationalist movements that look more like Triumph of the Will and American neo-Nazis than anything else.  What is more surprising is virtually none of the exhibition focuses on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a watershed moment in the reconstruction, although the museum concentrates heavily on the process of political renewal.

However, several exhibits were provocative and succeeded in bringing across the enormity of the efforts of South Africans of all stripes to end apartheid peacefully.  Most notable was the array of television screens showing leaders at the 1993 constitutional convention discussing the process to peaceful political transition, while large windows beneath the screens showed the gallery in the next room with large projections of 1990’s violence during the same process.  It was meant, and it succeeded, to show the struggle of political leaders to overcome the destructiveness, yet appeal, of violence to come together and construct a new government.  This exhibit makes the blown-up photograph of the first free South African parliament, with President Nelson Mandela sitting in the front row, even more poignant:  it highlights the remarkable journey of a country from civil war to revolution to peace in a few short, relatively bloodless years.

And this was the museum’s greatest triumph.  It did not seek to create anger, nor to implicate the past in the travails of the present.  It sought to show the process of power and politics and the promise of South Africa through the audacity of its leaders and liberators.  It is not a museum of the past, says Steven C. Dubin: “That presupposes that museums are exclusively the domain of the defunct and the antiquated, rather being places that can initiate dialogue and stimulate debate about past as well as contemporary issues.”  The Apartheid Museum does stimulate debate, and seeing the museum in the context of the current election makes it even more meaningful.  One of the last exhibits is a glass case filled with newspaper articles—current newspaper articles—regarding politics, the election, and national South African issues.  The most recently dated one was February 27, two days before we visited the museum.  The attention paid to the present, in the context of the past, was the singular goal of the exhibit, and brought the entire museum full circle.  This is not a post-apartheid experiment but a modern exhibit detailing the colorful and diverse range of the South African population, across all political divides, and the promise of the future.

March 1, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More