A Museum For The Heartbroken

I was staring at a wooden leg. It was on display. Next to it, a placard read:

“The prosthesis endured longer than our love. It was made of sturdier material.”

I was in Zagreb at the Museum of Broken Relationships. I didn’t know what to really expect when I had heard about this small three-room museum in the center of the Croatian capital.

I wasn’t sure if looking at objects that broken-hearted people had donated to the museum would have any redeeming value. After all, when I first heard about the museum, visiting it sounded about as joyful and exciting as a funeral procession.

But I was in Zagreb, a town I didn’t like very much (at least the last time I was there) and decided I had a choice: I could go to this museum or watch drunkards fall down in the main square. I went with the former.

“Well, a relationship very short, but mentally so tough and ‘crazy’ that it brought me to a moment of complete madness … and I cut my hair and I lived without it for a long time and no one loved me … And I was happy”
-Placard next to lock of hair

In the last year alone, I could start my own museum of broken relationships. But that’s not exactly why I was lured here. After all, it almost felt invasive to get a glimpse into someone’s past romantic relationships, even if the object they’d abandoned by donating it to the museum may have aroused a sense of catharsis.

I strolled around the museum, rotating my eyes between the objects and the placards. Each one told a story – sometimes in one sentence and sometimes in several paragraphs. I pulled out a notebook to make some notes and realized that – fittingly enough – the pen I was holding was from a hotel I had stayed in with someone I’d been romantically involved with the previous year.

“May it dance with teddy bears, wedding rings, love letters, and other people’s boxer shorts. But without me.”
-Placard next to a wedding dress

I tried my best to ignore it and began jotting down some of the items. There was an axe, various sex toys, a garden gnome, a pair of mannequin hands, and a clock that says, “We broke up on Skype.” I was only halfway through the museum but I decided I loved it here. Was it the sense that I was standing among the objects of people with whom I’ve recently shared something? Aside from our own survival and death, losing someone we love – that the person will revoke their love for us – is one of our biggest fears.

Later I would meet with the co-founder, Olinka Vistica, who started the museum with her ex-boyfriend as memorial to their own broken relationship. When I asked her about the appeal of the place, she had this to say: “I think we’ve tapped into something that’s important for each of us, something universal.” I asked why the museum is so popular. “It’s the celebration of the end of one cycle, an era, and the beginning of another.”

Gain and loss is something we experience on a daily basis. Sometimes we accept it. Sometimes we don’t – to the point it kills us. Which is why I think I may have gravitated here: a simple reminder of the impermanence of all things. We sometimes let life sweep us away, getting caught up in petty aspects of our life and anxieties about things that will fade with the passing of time. And it took me traveling to Zagreb, to visiting this small but fascinating museum to remind me that, really, the Museum of Broken Relationships is more than a depository of objects that symbolize lost love. It’s a museum dedicated to the ephemeral nature of things, something our minds trick us into forgetting about – certainly a self-defense mechanism.

If I needed a most dramatic reminder, it was the dog collar. It sat on a pedestal, a light on it frantically blinking. The note next to it was written by a man who had decided to break up with his wife. She, and the couple’s dog, moved back to her parents’ house until she could figure out how to get on with her life. The note went on to explain that, since he adored and missed the dog so much, his ex-wife sent the collar to him. A year went by and he was hoping for the best for both of them, that they could both move on and eventually be happy. But one day he got some sad and disturbing news: his ex-wife had found it impossible to move on so she gave up – she killed herself.

As I was making my way to the museum exit, I felt both weighed down by some of the heartbreak I read about as well as uplifted to have a reminder that pain and loss will come again in all of our lives. And to accept this is to transcend it.

But just for good measure, I took out that pen – the one I picked with the far away hotel scrawled across it – and discreetly left it on a table at the museum. Just for good measure, it was my own donation to the Museum of Broken Relationships.