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Heartbreak Hotel: A museum in Zagreb displays tokens of failed relationships

A museum in Zagreb displays tokens of failed relationships and stories of love and hurt.

Updated: November 16, 2014 1:02:56 pm
The displays at Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships. The displays at Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships.

By: Deepti Patwardhan

A toaster, a stiletto, an empty box of gourmet popcorn, Bob Dylan’s book Tarantula, an axe, a wedding dress and a stuffed caterpillar toy with its limbs torn apart could seem like a strange assortment. But they are not part of a collection of junk items in an old attic; they are ruins of real, or supposed, love on display in the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia.


Each item is displayed separately along with a note written by an “estranged lover”, looking to unburden the pain of breaking up. A simple white background and the bright lights make each of them stand out, letting the tokens of failed relationships — donations from all around the world — take centrestage and narrate their unique stories. “The museum gives a chance to people to ‘get rid’ of an object that has an emotional meaning to them, and write a story that helps them unburden,” says Drazen Grubisic, the museum’s co-founder.

The concept for the museum was born out of a difficult, on-the-verge-of-snapping relationship between co-founders Grubisic and Olinka Vistica. “It was during our break-up that we came up with this idea. What do we do with all the tokens of love, material and immaterial,” says Grubisic. He and Vistica have moved on since — Grubisic now has a wife and a seven-year-old daughter — but continue to be friends and business partners. “We wouldn’t have succeeded in developing this project if we didn’t believe in the cathartic effect of donating the items,” he adds.


Now housed in a modest one-storey building in Zagreb’s upper town Gornji Grad, the museum was launched in 2006 as an art installation in a shipping container. It took off as a travelling exhibition to places as close as neighbouring Serbia and as far as Argentina. It finally settled down in 2010 in the Croatian capital, also the hometown of the co-founders, the city so frequently represented by plump, red “Zagreb hearts”. Gornji Grad is a maze of winding streets, and has a lot of museums, galleries and other cultural centres. But the Museum of Broken Relationships, which received the Kenneth Hudson award for Europe’s most innovative museum in 2011, is one of the city’s most popular attractions.


It is obvious why the museum instantly struck a chord with people all over the world. Last year, it saw a footfall of 50,000, most of them foreign tourists. The stories of love and heartbreak — witty, light-hearted, bitter, hopeful, complex, disbelieving, full of anger, adoration or regret — tell it all.


Every tale takes you on a journey, underlining the value of love in our lives, and the havoc it can wreak. There are accounts of relationships that lasted from a few hours to as long as 30 years. The donors remain anonymous; the captions come with a timeline and the name of the city of the contributor.

Two items stood out for me, maybe because they were from the opposite ends of the spectrum. The first was a child’s wartime love letter written in May 1992, when two young hearts found solace in each others’ company for three days even as Yugoslavia was being torn to pieces. It spoke of love in all its innocence. The second was a toaster. The accompanying note said: “When I moved out, and across the country, I took the toaster. That’ll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?”


While a large part of the canvas is the typical “boy meets girl, boy leaves girl” romance, the museum also explores relationships in their various forms. It has devoted a separate area to splintered family ties. For Grubisic, an evocative and popular exhibit is, “Frogs: Mom left when I was three. This is one of the few Christmas gifts she has given me.”


“All of us have different reasons for hanging on to certain things in our lives. Our exhibits testify to a lost love. Whether the owners said ‘good riddance’ or mourned the relationship, they felt that the story deserved to be told. None of us want our stories, our loves to be forgotten. All these ‘episodes’ of love in our lives are no less important for the fact that they have ended,” says Grubisic.

The welcome note inside the museum includes an apt quote from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: “Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator… (there is) no amorous oblation without a final theatre.”

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance writer based in Mumbai


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