Gabriel Solomons

Object Lessons

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September 28th, 2015

During a recent trip to Zagreb for a conference, I finally got the chance to visit a museum that i’d read so much about and was keen to experience for myself.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, a permanent memoriam to ‘temporary union’ is a unique place. Not simply due to its collection of seemingly trivial objects, but because a museum dedicated to such a collection has become a pilgrimage site for visitors from around the world.

Set up following the real-life break-up of founders Olinka Vištica and Drazen Grubišić in 2006, the museum’s exhibition of personal objects donated by ordinary people snakes its way through six or so rooms, each loosely based on a theme. Poetic interludes by the likes of Mary Oliver are sparsely and discreetly applied on walls to remind the visitor of the importance of connection and inevitable separation.

The objects themselves are accompanied by texts in both Croatian and English that range in length from a few words to essay long diatribes – some humorous, others tragic but all are honest testament to each donor’s feeling of sadness and loss.

A stuffed animal is positioned next to a cheque book or a roll of film and all are displayed respectfully on illuminated plain white risers or wall mounted cabinets. Minimal decoration is used as a thematic device such as the discoloured tile backdrop in the “Resonance of Grief” room which includes a bottle of conditioner, heroin testing kit and an axe violently impaled into a plinth. While some donors are clearly confident with their ability to weave a well told (and written) story, I found some of the strongest pieces accompanied by fewer words. One object in particular – a fairly kitche ceramic frog ornament found in the room dedicated to family relationships – simply has the following heartbreaking caption:

‘Mom left when I was 3, this is one of the few Christmas gifts she has given me’

While some objects speak of shared interests or commemorate events such as the broken glasses used each year to celebrate a couple’s anniversary ritual, others suggest that trouble was on the horizon from the get go. The boy who mistakenly thought that his gift of a Galileo thermograph would capture his beloved heart’s affections eventually has it added to the scrapheap of doomed romance as his Taiwanese ex-lover simply states: ‘WTF! Could that be the kind of birthday gift a 20-year old girl would expect?!’

An unused stun gun given as an odd gesture of protection, a can of love incense which in the words of its doner ‘Doesn’t work’ and a wedding dress that symbolizes failed promises – all are physical testimony to relationships that fizzled, burned out or broke apart.

Speaking to someone the day after about the reasons why we both felt elated at the end of our visit rather than cynical or morose, it struck me that at the heart of the museum’s existence lies a cathartic ‘letting go’ of something meaningful and symbolic for each donor – a gesture of ending to allow for a new beginning.

While some of the stories may be depressing and, by nature of the museum’s title suggest heartbreak, the donation of each object to the museum is anything but. Rather than a selfish act of opportunism, it could be said that each donation is a selfless gesture affording the viewer a chance to connect emotionally with his or her own pain or suffering. A problem aired is a problem shared after all, and similar to the way in which Princess Diana’s death seemed to open up a public channel of grief in the UK – objects in the MoBR offer a quiet and contemplative space to mourn our own fractured past.

This quasi-religious subtext may explain why the museum, which has had a travelling element since 2008, chose as one of its venues the Oude Kerk (Old Church) right in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district in 2013. The Organisers of that particular exhibition – the workgroup “Art and Church” – went one step further by choosing objects that related in some way to stories being told in Biblical readings at the church in the run-up to Christmas.

As with other of its temporary residences around the world, the museum has a committed and active group of regional ‘ambassadors’ who curate each show based on objects collected from the local community.

This global network of passionate advocates for the museum is helping to ensure its survival and is testament to the universal appeal of a place dedicated to telling extraordinary stories by ordinary people. The unpretentious nature of their endeavor is what makes it such a success in my opinion, as museums traditionally tend to be quite alienating or stuffy by way of their ‘look but don’t touch’ policy. The MOBR also has a no touch policy, but the objects displayed are by no means precious artifacts of historical or monetary value in the traditional sense. Each object is rather a signifier of a commonplace human experience – that of the ‘death’ of love. While some would argue that this in and of itself doesn’t merit the establishing of a museum – I would counter that this is exactly the sort of thing that a modern museum should be about.

The acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk suggested as much when he opened his Museum of Innocence in 2012, as both an accompaniment to his novel of the same name (published in 2008) and as a declaration of love to his home city of Istanbul. He too believes that museums should celebrate the individual strory and feels strongly that ‘…our daily lives are honourable – the details of our gestures, our words, our smells, our sounds, our objects, are worthy of preservation.’

In an age when technology and the proliferation of ‘smart’ cities seems to be divorcing us from real human interaction, a museum such as this refocuses our attention on an essential human need – that of emotional connection through shared experiences.

Objects are inherently evocative and many of us define ourselves by the things we work, play and think with. We invest energy, time and money in choosing gifts for our loved ones and so each of these objects subsequently ‘hold’ meaning to ourselves and others. They often embody a time and place, acting as conduits of good and bad memories that help us to compose our life’s narrative.

The everyday nature of these ordinary objects are often far more meaningful that anything we may find in a traditional museum, and is therefore another reason to be thankful that the Museum of Broken Relationships exists.

The museum provides a place for anyone and everyone to share their stories of heartbreak and loss – safe in the knowledge that visitors will empathise with their grief rather than judge. Morbid curiosity may bring many punters through the door, but a profound sense of connectivity is more likely to be what is taken out – as was the case when I exited into the fading light of a breezy September evening in Zagreb.

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