Here’s how a breakup inspired one of the world’s quirkiest museums—and how you can visit.
I once had a girlfriend who claimed—with some pride—that she had never been dumped. She dumped me soon afterwards, of course. But looking back, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for her. Everyone should experience heartbreak at least once in their lifetime. Most of us experience it more than once.
Whatever the circumstances of a broken heart, lovesick folks the world over may draw comfort from the Museum of Broken Relationships: the brainchild of two star-crossed Croatian lovers, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić.
After their own love affair ended, the estranged couple began collecting the relics of other failed relationships. Everyday objects like watches, high-heeled shoes, and cigarette lighters were anonymously donated by local Zagreb residents, and in 2010 the first Museum of Broken Relationships opened for business.
Since then, Olinka and Dražen have curated temporary exhibitions in over 50 locations, including London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Shanghai. In November 2018, a newly revamped exhibition was unveiled at the museum’s permanent home in Zagreb. And at the end of March 2019, a brand new temporary exhibition will open its doors in England’s York Castle—just in time for Brexit, the United Kingdom’s own “broken relationship” with the European Union.
Speaking to me from her Zagreb office, Olinka explained how the idea for the museum first came about.
“Dražen and I were going through what many people go through,” she told me. “It was an amicable breakup, but we found it very hard to say good-bye. We wanted to keep alive some of the great memories we had—to leave a trace of our love.
“I wrote an essay called ‘The Museum of Broken Relationships.’ But it was just a metaphor at that point. It stayed in my drawer for two years, until Dražen persuaded me that this metaphorical place might actually be transformed into somewhere real.”
How the Museum of Broken Relationships started
The museum had humble beginnings; the first exhibition was given in a shipping container in a museum garden in Zagreb. But the basic premise was already in place.
“We had the idea that the objects should be presented very simply, with a card underneath outlining the person’s story,” said Olinka. “It could be a few words, or a few lines, or it could be something longer and more intricate.”
Over 4,000 objects—ranging from the darkly comic to the patently tragic—have since been submitted from anonymous donors across the globe. These include an axe used to chop up an ex-boyfriend’s furniture; a letter written by a 13-year-old boy fleeing Sarajevo; and a jar of “love incense,” labeled simply: “doesn’t work.”
There’s a special kind of magic to these items. They are mundane in and of themselves. But the stories they tell are like windows onto the souls of strangers.
“I love to see visitors contemplating the objects, completely absorbed in the stories,” said Olinka. “We exhibit our personal stuff on social media. But we’re always protected by own curated profile. These stories are much more intimate and real.
“The exhibitions are never the same,” she continued, “because they always include local donations. For example, we have a new project coming up in Dunedin, New Zealand, and these smaller projects are very often the best. You get a real sense of the place and the people who live there.”
Being British, I was curious to hear about the upcoming exhibition in York Castle. Did Olinka think it was important to address the tricky question of Brexit?
“I think our lives are to some extent defined by breaks and rifts,” she said. “These are the moments when we learn so much about ourselves. So I think that in the case of Brexit, the exhibition might have a very strong significance.”
How to visit the Museum of Broken Relationships
A new exhibition (opened November 2018) at the museum’s permanent location consists of eight separately themed rooms. The museum is housed in the 19th-century Kulmer Palace in Zagreb’s Upper Town. There is a café/bar and a gift shop selling apparel and home accessories, including “bad memory erasers” and “anti-stress pencils.”
Address: Ćirilometodska 2, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia.
Opening times: Daily from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. during the summer (June 1 to September 30); 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the winter (October 1 to May 31). Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Easter, and All Saints’ Day.
Admissions: Adults 40 kuna (US$6); students and seniors 30 kuna (US$4.50).
In the United Kingdom
A one-year exhibition will open in the York Castle Museum at the end of March 2019. Opening times and admission prices to be confirmed.
Address: York Castle Museum, Eye of York, York, United Kingdom.
In New Zealand
A three-month exhibition will open in Dunedin’s Otago Museum in December 2019. Opening times and admission prices to be confirmed.
Address: Otago Museum, 419 Great King Street, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Note: The museum is currently seeking a new location in Los Angeles. Keep up to date on this and other upcoming projects at the museum’s official website.