Museum of Broken Relationships

Dražen Grubišić on love, social media and the significance of objects as part of one’s intimate history.

Their museum in Zagreb, Croatia. Source : @brokenships on Instagram

In 2006, two former lovers, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić introduced an installation featuring items from their past relationship to serve as a vault for their intangible value, alongside 40 others from friends and complete strangers under anonymity in Croatia. A short description about the significance of the item in the relationship was the only information. These stories of loss resonated with the rest of the world. It snowballed into the Museum of Broken Relationships, featuring collections from 33 countries, shown in 56 exhibitions across 6 continents, with glowing media attention ranging from the New York Times to Chinese national news. I visited their exhibit in Melbourne in 2019, and enjoyed the incredible stories of sadness,passion and anger from all over the world. The co-creator, Dražen Grubišić joins me for a short interview.

Do you have any favourite objects in the exhibition?

Favorite ones?It’s hard to say because.. It’s hard to have a preference, because sometimes it’s very personal stuff. I met the person who donated the item or there’s a specific situation. Right now there are some 4600 objects in the collection. So choosing, it’s really hard.Sometimes it’s just because these were the first ones here so you’re kind of connected to them.

So yeah, I can’t answer that I mean, yes there are like hundred of fifty of them are my favourite ones. And also, they’re very different. So you have some that are talking about family ,we have some about romantic relationships we have some about war. Some there’s so different. It’s really impossible to choose.

Have you received more donations during the pandemic?

No, not really. It’s a steady flow. So, there have been some during the pandemic, that are really talking about pandemic. How the break up happened because they got stuck together and they couldn’t really handle it. So we got those stories, but number wise it’s the same.

Are there any similarities or differences in narrative themes,or items within countries or during specific years?

It’s funny because in one way,this exhibition really shows you no matter where you come from, go through these emotions in the same way. And on the other hand the differences are in the way the stories are written. But I think it has more to do with the culture you live in.So for example, stories from US or UK or even Australia (Anglophone countries), they all fit into this culture of expressing almost story-like, maybe like a short description for a movie. Or a very journalistic style of when,who,why and all these, everything is there. It’s quite explicit.

The contrary would be France, where we were joking, you have a feeling that people went to a psychotherapist for a year. And now they’re retelling you what came up with their psychotherapist. They’re retelling the story from that angle. It’s almost like a third person perspective, distancing themselves.

So it’s quite different, but romantic as well.

Yeah it is but I think it’s cultural. It has to do with your cultural surroundings. Also, one of the things that we noticed in Japan and Korea, quite a few stories have a storyline of, although it fell apart, I’m still grateful for the experience.It’s more of acceptance and gratitude, so to say, and thankfulness compared to the very “I” culture of the US, where you have narratives of, “I don’t know why this always happens to me!” These are the differences, if that was your question .

There are also other differences. It has to do with the economy with the, with the time. We had like three exhibitions in Germany.

And we got quite a few stories that came from the Second World War. So, history is also influencing stories . If some parts of the history is really strong in a country then of course this is reflected in the stories as well.When we had the exhibition in the Philippines in Manila, we got quite a few stories about breakups, because somebody had to go away and work in some other country, and their relationship fell apart. Now if you know that there are 6 million Filipinos working abroad. Then of course, it reflects in the stories as well. You will get that. So, these things happen.So the bigger events show up in very personal stories.

The exhibition in No Vacancy Gallery in 2019.

Has anyone ever come forward to look at the item they donated and asked for it back?

Yeah, the beginning. And then we said, when you donate an object to sign a form. And it says the object is non returnable so we just had, I think last year we had one request, saying I know I signed this document is non-returnable but we got together so can I get it back?So we sent it back.

That was actually one of my later questions. Have there been any success stories of people finding the same love,rekindling with their ex partner?

I mean, we were doing our second execution in Split, a girl who came to the exhibition, to bring her object to the opening . And there she met her ex. They were standing in the doorway for a half an hour talking and so on and then she just turned and went “ I’m sorry, can I get it back?”. I mean there are really some, some really funny stories.

Oh, can you share one which comes to mind?

Oh, since we’ve been travelling (for the exhibition), and we bring the objects with us in a suitcase. For example, South Africa. And I just told Olinka,I’ll handle the customs officer and we meet here in like 10 minutes.And some 45 minutes later I’m running to the gate and Olinka was like “What happened? We’re going to be late for the plane!”

I was with the customs officer. The customs officer, when he opened the suitcase and he found out what it was about. He was telling me his love story for like half an hour. And then I was like sure I’m sorry. I think I’m gonna be late for the plane. So it really happens in the most unexpected places. You have people have this need to tell you, which is really great. It’s the best way to travel, go somewhere and you people just open up and you’re like, suddenly, the psychotherapist and best friend and it’s pretty amazing.

Can you tell me about when you both decided to set up the museum, and the process. You started out with a smaller exhibition, when did it grow to become what it is?

Yeah, it’s funny because it was never meant to be, the Museum. That was not the idea, the idea was like, we went through a breakup, we, we went through this problem of what to do with the objects that mean something to two people that you don’t want to have around in the situation after the breakup. And we wanted to explore it in an artistic way and offer a chance to people to make it easy for them to go through it. And the way I saw it was like, let’s just make an exhibition.

The reason we called it the museum was because the word “museum”, kind of meant safety for these objects. So, something is in the museum ,you know it’s been taken care of. It’s not somewhere in a dusty corridor in a box it’s you know it’s safe, it’s there. You don’t have to worry about it. The idea was not to have a physical museum, the idea was let’s make the exhibition and then when we did the response was pretty amazing. It sort of developed on its own and we were just following it. So after three years of travelling,t hat’s not how I usually work ,I have, I make something I have the exhibition. And for me, that’s it. I have some other projects that work on then I have another exhibition. And then to move forward and so, and this somehow, because people are involved.This stuck with us.

There was a moment that we were like, what are we gonna do with this I mean, are we really gonna pursue this ?Because we both have other jobs and stuff and so there was a moment.Yeah, but fortunately, we can’t just throw away These things that people gave us so it should continue somehow and the best way to continue was to open a permanent museum and rent a space and it was a big deal because at the moment it was the first private museum in Croatia. It was unexpected.Yeah, and we were kind of forced to do it. It was not something that we thought of at the moment,this project.

The author documents smashing past love letters, and eventually parting ways with the remnants by sending it to the Museum. Source : Hachette Group Publishing

In the book, I noticed there was a botched breast implant that was donated. That was quite shocking .The story behind it, is quite inspirational as well. What would be something you would refuse to accept?

Right from the start, we had, we had ground rules.

So we would not accept anything that was kind of vengeful, that was meant to hurt on any racial,national or any kind of level. And it was funny because we had all these rules like what we will reject. And in 13 years.Yeah, 13 years, we’ve never had the situation that we had to reject something. So I guess people are nice. People are nicer than we expected to be.

Have you visited any museums, which are inspired by yours, like the one in LA?

The one in LA is ours. Oh, yeah. The gentleman came over and he was like the last thing you want to open it in LA so we made it happen.

And it was quite a big step, because it’s hard to give control over something that you’ve been working for so long, somewhere that’s far away. But on the other hand it also opened some other possibilities .That’s when we had the book deal and the moment we stepped on American ground and had permanent address things just happened.So, it was a good decision.

We had a lot of people asking for a franchise and wanting to open something like that, but most of these people see this as a business opportunity. Most of the time it’s direct opposition with what we wanted. So, we didn’t agree to it,unfortunately, because like, the first thing that comes to my mind is they want somebody famous. Have some of this famous story in the museum.

And for us, it was of utmost importance for everything to be anonymous, because we think that everybody has a story, and everybody’s story is on the same level .And so that was mainly that was the reason why we continue travelling,that’s the best way to do it.

Back to the botched breast implant.How do you go about showing objects with stories detailing abuse?

We don’t show faces, you know show faces. Yeah, we never show faces. There are sometimes photos and we always display them but in a way you don’t actually see the face in a photo.

You know, there are some really strange stories.Some of them are hardcore. Toy Soldier, the story for it. He tried killing her but he changed his mind and so on. So, there’s some really strange stories but I think they’re all worth showing. I really think that our exhibition is quite educational as well.

Sometimes people leave some of these situations and show people Let’s show them what it really means.

It’s important for you to show it as a kind of success in a way people have escaped from a bad situation.

Yeah. I mean, even if they didn’t. You know there are some that ended with suicide, I think it’s also important to show them because if you find yourself in some situations similar to that, you will consider calling for help and not going that way. So, yeah, I really, we have quite a few situations where I remember that there was this guy. I think it was in his 80s or something, American tourist. And he came out of the exhibition and he was like, “Wow man I really learned something today. I think I’ve seen it all at all but wow, this was …this was…, and it really made me think!”. And then he and his friends, or his wife and two couples. They sat in a cafe, next to the museum and I think they were discussing stories for like an hour. So even having 80 years of life experience,it was still something. Some of the things were new to them and they had to discuss it and go through it so yeah I think it is educational.

Why do we let people’s belongings hold such a power over us?

That was the question we started this project with, it was quite amazing that we have this time. For us it was a funny windup bunny, this plain object which cost like $1 is so close to — I mean you know you remember the film Castaway with Tom Hanks, yes.

He almost drowned himself swimming after the Wilson, the ball. At the end, you know, really. Why do we connect to objects so strongly? I don’t know. I mean, I’m not sure that I’m the person- I’m not sure that anyone knows the answer, but it’s there and it should be explored.

Do you think there’s a decrease in the importance of physical objects, due to how online based dating is now, because my generation tends to spend a lot of time messaging, spending a lot of time on social media?

Definitely that I mean, that’s why on our website. You can now store some of your digital remains. Because we are aware there are no more letters. The photos are not being developed, they’re on your devices. So, yeah, a lot of it is going to digital, but I’m not sure I mean, for example, my mom, the place where I grew up. And it’s completely covered with books, art. Our house is completely full of stuff. And wherever we went, when I was a kid, they would buy something and bring it home and it’s on all those shelves. You have so many physical memories of everything. And, for example, when I moved away when I was like, early 20s when I moved away to my apartment. I had nothing. And just like the beds and the table and computer and that was it. I had nothing. And in a way, I’m trying to get rid of objects all my life.

But it’s- it’s really hard because then when you move, you open a box and there is some stuff there. And you don’t really want to get rid of this photo or this little trinket or something. It’s there’s a sort of physical reminder that something happened in your life might explain as well is. We tried different ways of displaying this exhibition. Once we were in a gallery which was quite small. And I had this great idea that we will display half for the exhibition, the way we do it, and half we just print out the photos of the objects with the story. So in this corridor you had photos of the objects and the stories. Visitors would just go through this and glance at the photos,walk to the place where all the objects are, and they would read every story there. So it’s like the physicality of an object is in a way, proving that it really happened. If it’s just a photo you don’t feel that way. I think that the physical reminder is, is something that is important, as is the proof of this happening in your life, in a way.

Also, you’ve mentioned that things like letters and photographs are becoming obsolete.It’s a shame. Do you also think online dating is interfering with our ability to communicate our feelings out loud or has this always been a problem?

No, I’m sure it happens. I mean I just read a great article about how language is becoming shorter ,sentences are becoming shorter, we use fewer words than we did 50 years ago. I don’t want to even go into my daughter’s messaging, what that looks like. And one of the reasons that this is a problem is it’s very hard to express your feelings that way. And this then leading to more violence,to problems in relationships and so on and so on. I really do think it’s a problem. And also you may have a real relationship but you may spend two hours on Facebook Messenger, every night. And it’s gone. I mean after six months you won’t be able to go back and check everything that you wrote.

So it’s gone forever. It’s not like I’m taking my letters from when I was 20 from somewhere and reading them, going through them and reading them. I can, I could, if they wanted to. You cannot. So, most of the digital’s that I mean, for example, my archive of photos are digital photos. I have them burned onto CDs, and I have three extra hard drives, with copies. Because, you know, hard drives die so I’m gonna lose everything that I had in the last 15 years. I really don’t want that to happen. But it might happen. And we’ve been here through a lot of disasters, We had war in the 90s. And guess what, the first thing that people would grab from their house when they were running away was documents and photos. And that’s you know that’s the thing you save. So, being in a situation where you might lose it. It’s quite terrifying.

Contrast : A story of acceptance and one of pettiness, both are cathartic.

It does force you to confront what you value as well.

I mean, it doesn’t mean that you know you won’t be able to live, but not having anything from your past would be quite strange.

So, I have one last question for you for today. In a TED talk by your colleague. Both of you have described that you shun the word therapy, used to describe the Museum. Elaborate more about that?

Because the problem with the word therapy is. There must be something wrong. And because of something is wrong, you go to terrible

The culture now is promoting happiness as the normal state of mind. So we’re happy all the time. And if you’re sad that you should take pills or you should go and talk to a psychiatrist. I think it’s like Yin and Yang, if you’re sad that the amount of happiness should be equal to the amount of sadness. And in between is the normal state of being, you know the social media are destroying this generation really your generation as well.

Online presence has nothing to do with real life. I mean, I don’t have Instagram but I know what it is and what it shows, and it’s bizarre to see all these happy shiny people in, you know, amazing situations with glasses of champagne and whatnot and it’s totally bullshit really, and having this as a mirror to the outside world it’s terrible. And, we have quite a few friends in the US. And for me it was always funny this culture of taking pills when something’s wrong.

It’s not I mean, even even today’s what they do with kids you know oh he has. What’s it called? ADHD. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, in my time, people would just say oh the kids a bit livelier, you know, it’s got more energy and that will be it. And it’s just it’s just everything’s gonna be weird. For example, I don’t know if you know in the Middle Ages. The preferred state was sadness. That was popular. You were supposed to be sad, that was the normal situation.All of the correspondence between knights and maidens was about suffering,how hard everything is, everybody dying. Social media is completely different. This happiness culture is totally bizarre. If you grow with the fairy tales of. They met and they live happily forever after, great, but that’s not true life. Life is different.

I think Instagram’s purpose is to capture the good sides of someone’s life and celebrates achievement, it doesn’t show the rigorous process to achieving those things, whereas your museum focuses on capturing the whole range of human emotions.

Yeah, it’s why I say it’s a museum about love. Just upside down, because you in every relationship has a period of expiring dates, so to say. Even if it’s the most wonderful and great relationship, again, somebody will die. And the relationship will die off as well. So, it’s just showing everything that happens, it doesn’t mean that everything in our museum was horrible. We have beautiful love stories. At the end,people deal with it, and they move on.

And that’s for me that’s life. That’s normal, normal life. And the rest is kind of a fairy tale stuff. Instagram is a fairy tale stuff,it’s bullshit .There’s no other word I can find.

Thank you so much for your time today!

Note: This interview has been edited for brevity.

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Lynette Hew

Lynette Hew

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B.A in Economics and Minor in Chinese Studies @unimelb. I write about art,economics and finance.