The Museum of Broken Relationships: Turning Heartbreak Into Art

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If you’re reading this, congratulations – you survived what is likely the most divisive day of the year. There are those holidays and celebrations that some might embrace while others simply ignore, but when it comes to Valentine’s Day, nothing else conjures up such a mess of sentimentality, meaning, commercialism, hatred, despair, and opposition (except maybe Arbor Day).

It’s a day that can be embraced in many different forms, be it with a partner or a group of single friends, or simply with those in protest of what can easily seem like manufactured love and a hoard of monogamous couples circling the wagons to promote their specific kind of love. But we’re not here to champion them or to argue. Instead we will observe Valentine’s Day, and perhaps memorialize it, with a little help from an institution on the other side of the world.

The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia is one of a kind – part showcase, part grieving process, and entirely positive and enlightening. In essence, it’s an ever-growing and changing collection of artifacts, tokens, and mementos that literally and figuratively represent relationships that have ended, as donated to the museum by those involved.

Broken is an important word here; there is a specific reason that ‘failed’ isn’t used. Most relationships end, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t exciting, worthwhile, educational, or right for the specific time and place in which they existed. And that’s regardless of how they ended. A failed relationship might be one in which you didn’t try, or maybe one that didn’t even happen to begin with.

But ‘broken’ is something else. It’s something that has fallen apart, either by fate or chance, not necessarily because of a lack of effort or interest. Things just fall apart sometimes.

Relationships can end at any time of the year – one is probably crumbling as I write this – and while the process to recover and regroup rises and falls, Valentine’s Day has the chance to crystallize pain, frustration, and sadness in a completely arbitrary and unhealthy way. The museum encourages people to engage directly with that part of one’s life. On Valentine’s Day in 2015, for instance, the Museum provided giant bolt cutters so that people could break their love locks attached to bridges and fences, souvenirs of once solid relationships that had fallen away.

So, while it may prove difficult to get to Croatia to help facilitate this process, we can try and bring it to you in written form as we collectively tackle the aftermath of Valentine’s Day and turn it into something beneficial and healthy.

Create Something

The museum seeks to help people accept and overcome loss through creation. Initially it was conceived as a traveling exhibition about failed relationships, showcasing the ruins left behind to witness and pore over. Now, however, while it’s still touring the world, it’s about being an active participant in something that once was a way to offer closure – or failing that, normalcy. Visitors can contribute to the collection by donating personal belongings as a way of letting go. The museum houses a famous Book of Confessions, where people can scribble ideas anonymously. And it’s not just about breaking up with a partner; one entry begins, “To Mom and Dad,’ while another simply says, “Hope Dies Last.”

So instead of throwing away or burning the remnants of a bygone relationship, take the good and the bad and create something from it that will solidify that experience as a thing of the past – never to grow overwhelming, but never to be ignored.

Identify the Relationship

Included in the museum are a pair of furry pink handcuffs and, elsewhere, a set of red high heels, donated by a woman, bought for her by her former dominating lover.

Too often we like to narrowly define what a relationship can be.  A relationship based purely on sex is still a relationship. A long-lasting friendship is one too, as is a torrid love affair had while on vacation. So is one that is ill defined, but offers a connection, however much it may change. And they can all be healthy for a time.

Our lives are made up of various relationships that may come and go, rise and fall, and when they pass, it’s worth acknowledging them – even if they weren’t defined as serious, exclusive, monogamous and/or heteronormative, even if they were unhealthy or lasted far too long. Identify the relationship and realize that just because it wasn’t everything, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t anything.

Accept the Past

We are, for better and worse, an amalgamation of old relationships. However sour they may have turned, we are who we are in our present situation due in part to what happened in the past. While some potential partners may feel uncomfortable learning about the past, we should accept what has happened and know that we take from the experience, consciously or not, a lot of life lessons.

Ideally we want to take the positive and acknowledge the bad; we all move forward carrying with us experiences that don’t have to be baggage. By displaying parts of our past for others to see (the museum, or really anywhere), we’re saying this is what was and is no more. Acceptance.

Share Stories

Ultimately, by talking and sharing stories, we can heal internally and better understand our needs and desires as well as those of others.  Part of the Museum’s wise attitude towards relationships is that, while exceedingly personal, there is universality to love and loss. “I thought she liked things that were old and broken,” says the text accompanying a pocket watch, donated by an elderly man who dated a younger woman. “But it turned out she didn’t.” We don’t know these people, but it’s still relatable. We are all connected by an understanding that love exists in its own way to all of us. Details may differ wildly and dramatically, but at love’s core there is a connection that is hard to explain and a power that drives us. We are not alone, even on – or in the wake of ­– Valentine’s Day.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.

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