The end of a relationship is a difficult and intensely personal thing to talk about, whether the end came in a snap or a slow, tortuous burn. Now that I've finally watched a couple of serious relationships crumble (it's been a weird year, guys), I can say that one of the hardest things in the aftermath was trying to sort through all the memories that I knew were meaningless to anyone but me - both tangible and intangible. Zagreb's award-winning Museum of Broken Relationships is an attempt to answer the questions, 'Do these memories mean anything anymore?' and 'How the hell do I get rid of my ex's shit?'. Naturally, I connected on a spiritual level to it while on my road trip around Croatia.
The concept's a simple one: people from all over the world send in significant objects from their broken relationships, along with a little description of what it means to them. These are all collected in Zagreb and curated at their whitewashed gallery a stone's throw from the main square; since they've been receiving lots of submissions, they rotate the exhibits and have even started touring them. It’s odd at first seeing things as mundane as a toy car or scraps of paper raised on illuminated white platforms, but once you start reading the labels that hold their narratives you find yourself totally sucked in.
It's a roller coaster ride of emotions in the museum, covering everything from long distance romances to fractured families to puppy love in the space of just an hour. Something as innocuous as an Uno pack (below) tells a heartbreaking story of military rape while an uplifting checklist of things to do in London reveals a relationship that never quite got its feet off the ground. There's also a few interactive elements to the exhibition; you can pop on some headphones to listen to the songs a man from the Philippines can no longer bear to or immerse yourself in the shaky footage of a war nurse telling her story.
In case you can’t read the potato quality photo:
Family Guy Edition Uno game 2007 -2012 Petroskey, USA/Australia (long distance)
A tale of two armies – the American and the Australian. We couldn’t seem to catch a break. America would send me to Iraq right when Australia would bring you home, and then you would go off as I was coming back. Iraq was no place for a widowed mother of twins, but your skills as a trauma nurse were more important to Australia, and you were too proud to try to back out of commitments. I admired that. And so it went on – bad luck and our obligations as soldiers interfering with our desires as lovers.
This caught my eye after we talked one day of your love of Family Guy and your unrivalled skills at Uno. I hoped one day to play it with you and, of course, to win. I carried it in my bag to Iraq, and then with me to Australia when I got R&R. We were supposed to play it then. Two weeks before I arrived, your ‘friend’ raped you and nearly beat you to death. I spent 18 days walking aimlessly around Brisbane in a fog while you alternated between saying you wanted to see me and feeling too ashamed to talk. Eventually I had to return to Iraq, and this returned with me. We broke up, but eventually gravitated back to each other. I was finally free of the military, and you were nearly finished as well. You asked me to be there in Australia when your flight came in from Afghanistan. There was nothing that would have made me happier. I came across this as I was packing and in the bag it went – finally we would have our chance!
Homecoming proved too overwhelming. You asked me to give you a couple of weeks while you sorted things out with your parents and your kids. I said I would be delighted, and took in the sights of Singapore and Indonesia while I waited for you to tell me to come. A few days became a few weeks, and my e-mails and phone calls went unanswered and finally I understood what I had spent so long ignoring – you were never ready to be serious.
And so I did what I knew best and continued travelling. In Zagreb, on your 30th birthday, I stumbled upon this museum and it was clear to me that what was perhaps the world’s most travelled game of Uno deserved to end its nomadic life here. No regrets, only learning. May you find peace in your life, darling. You deserve it.
To be honest, it’s not an easy experience and the entire area is filled with a kind of silence reserved for religious places – we got a double whammy of moodiness as it was raining and the transparent roof didn’t do much to disguise that. Once we'd finished walking round the space, we found the Confessional in the back. It's a small booth where you can scribble your own story in a book filled with hundreds of others in every language you can imagine, which puts your own little heartbreak into perspective while magnifying it at the same time.
On your way out, there's a modest souvenir store that sells tongue in cheek souvenirs as well as what is now one of my prized possessions: a gorgeous book that includes all the exhibits they have. If you're feeling peckish, there's also a small cafe but I can't really attest to the food there since we skipped it.
The Museum of Broken Relationships has been hailed one of the most innovative museums in the world and while I haven't been to nearly enough to pass that kind of judgment, it's definitely one of the most moving places I've ever been. There was just something so beautiful about watching all these meaningless objects take on lives and pain of their own, and how the museum makes you experience and empathise with them as if they were yours. It made me feel better knowing that the things that always get to me (glow in the dark stars, the slow inches of snail mail, crushing radio static and stationery store Christmas trees) still carry weight.
That these memories - these failures - are still significant.