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Uniquely recalling the endings of relationships, this award winning museum is really a compelling collection of melancholy, intimate snapshots from the lives of strangers. Andrew L. Urban found its cathartic vibe surprisingly uplifting.

A single black stiletto sits provocatively on a display cabinet in Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships, as if it were an art installation. Beside it is the note that explains why it’s there, an ironic testimony to very young love; it is not some curator’s carefully studied academic text, but a surprising, deeply personal and touching note from the woman who donated it, her identity hidden.

This is her story, as displayed with the shoe:
“It was 1959, I was ten, T was eleven. We were very much in love. When I told my mother we had gone skinny dipping in the canal, I got my ears boxed and was sent to spend the rest of the school holidays with an aunt. In 1966 when I was fifteen we had more wonderful times together until he moved to Germany with his parents. Our goodbye came with many tears and promises. We would write every week and never marry anyone else.

It was 1998 and I had just stopped working in prostitution. I wanted to write a book about S&M and was going to work for a dominatrix for a few weeks. On the second day, the dominatrix allowed me to belittle and whip a client. First I made him lick my stilettos. Because he wasn’t submissive enough and had the nerve to address me with ‘mistress’ (instead of ‘high mistress’), I wanted to whip him harder. And that was when I recognised him: “T., is that you?” He was startled and stood up. At once we were back in 1966. He told me he had the desire to be submissive because his father had often beaten him as a child. T. was now in his second marriage and he wanted to make it work. It was better we never saw each other again. After a few hours we said our goodbyes, and he asked: “Can I keep one of your stilettos as a memento?” When he walked out the door, it felt like my stiletto-less foot was no longer mine.”

It’s called a museum, but to get the most out of it, you have to read the letters that accompany the displays – displays that are usually interesting but meaningless out of context. Some are poignant, some are funny; most refer to romantic relationships. But parental breakages are also featured, like this one:

Frogs / 36 years
Bloomington, Indiana
Mom left when I was 3. This is one of the few Christmas gifts she has given me.

“For this aspect of our lives, there are no celebrations,” notes the Museum’s co-founder Olinka Vistica. Her surname is Croatian for ‘witch’, as it happens, the lovely Olinka explains with a bewitching smile.

The sun is streaming through the window, glinting off my coffee cup and the bottle of mineral water in the small café that welcomes visitors at the end of their walk through the museum in the old ‘upper’ town of Zagreb. It’s right after the merchandise shop, naturally. The best selling item here is a giant, symbolic eraser, yet the place is dedicated not to erase bad memories but to mark the end of relationships, says Olinka.

Aptly enough, Olinka was breaking up with her artist boyfriend, Drazen Grubisic back in 2006 when the idea was seeded during an evening conversation (obviously fairly amicable). “It was first a conversation and then a one page idea …we were thinking about how to reload our memories, perhaps in a cathartic way. I had the urge to confirm that the relationship had existed and not let it disappear.”

When they Googled the idea, all that came up was a list of self help books “urging you to go forward and forget,” which is the natural reaction to bad experiences. “So much is happening in public now on social media …. But melancholy doesn’t have a place.”

When Zagreb Salon accepted their application for the first exhibition, Olinka had worried that their call for donations of objects and stories from the public would be met with silence. “We sent an email to all our friends to spread the word and within a week we had a flood of entries. That’s when I realised there was more to this than I had realised ...”

They started with 40 items exhibited in an old shipping container, which helped forge the website name as ‘brokenships’; the full name seemed too long for a URL, anyway, Olinka figured.

Melancholy now does have a place and not only in the Zagreb museum, but at the various travelling sites that have marked the march of the museum’s fascination around the world. In Amsterdam they used a church in the red light district for a travelling display, in Mexico they were flooded with 1500 items. In Istanbul the venue was a shopping mall.

At its home base in Zagreb, there are around 100 items on display in rotation at any one time, with another 1400 or so in storage. The various rooms of the building – a modest 18th century palace once owned and inhabited by the Kulmer family and leased from one the descendants – represent various themes, such as first love, dangerous liaisons, families, once upon a time and so on. “We treat it all with respect,” says Olinka. “People feel welcomed.”

Drazen the artist is also Drazen the designer, having designed and decorated the entire museum, from the floors and walls to the display presentations. The combination of concept and execution won the 2011 Kenneth Hudson Award for the most innovative European museum.

Ideally located on a busy tourist route through the city, ‘Brokenships’ attracted over 60,000 visitors in 2013 (including many of the donors), about 70% of them from outside Croatia, as far away as US, UK, Taiwan, China and Brazil.

From June to August 2014, the travelling museum took part in London’s Festival of Love at the Southbank Centre. And concurrently (until October 17, 2014) the Museum has an outpost at Brussels’ Parlamentarium, the European Parliament Visitors Centre, comprising 100 items donated by the broken hearted from all over the world.

For the exhibition in Mexico, a girl sent a story that relied on 1,000 origami birds in various colours, hanging inside a large glass box. “We had 10 people work for two days to hang them” recalls Olinka. “When the girl came to the exhibition and saw this, she burst into tears…”

The objects – mostly everyday items – suddenly become compulsive, intriguing: I was drawn to a child’s pedal car, its steering wheel broken; a sports jacket with a Che Guevara emblem; an old vinyl single of If You Go Away performed by Terry Jacks according to the label; a do-it-yourself modem; a toaster … and their stories.

A modem for Commodore 64
June – December 1988
Zagreb, Croatia
He joined my class in the sixth grade of elementary school. It was love at first sight. We exchanged glances across the classroom and teased each other until we finally finished school. For a short while we even sat in the same bench. After elementary school we didn’t see each other for a few years since he went to high school in another city.

Then one day, just before the end of high school, he suddenly walked back into my life. We spent amazing six months together. During that time I enrolled in university and he was preparing to leave for Canada.

His stay in Canada was meant to last a few months but it has continued until this very day. We haven’t seen each other for 24 years now. He left the modem as a memento before leaving. He had built it himself back when we shared the same classroom. Possibly even the same bench.

He had won second prize for it at the state competition for young IT scientists way back in the eighties. Now already in the past century.

The toaster of vindication
Denver, Colorado
2006 – 2010
When I moved out, and across the country, I took the toaster. That'll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?

It is these personal, intimate, offbeat stories that put the items in context and provide the pathos, humour, sorrow, love and loss, each unique and touching in their own way. The cumulative effect is a feeling that we’ve been taken into the confidence of strangers at some of the most emotional milestone moments of their lives. It’s immersive and surprisingly uplifting.

There are many emotional moments for visitors. One Russian visitor was so moved at the end she hugged the receptionist on the way out … but they never saw each other again.

Published November 1, 2014

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A stun gun
March 2009 - July 2010
Zagreb, Croatia
The stun gun travelled all the way from Buffalo to Zagreb with a mission to protect his “little treasure” from the evil people while he was away. The love ended because my beloved got his planes and flights mixed up. Instead of boarding the plane which was supposed to take him to his daughters, he boarded the one that took him to a rich widow on the coast. To this day, the stun gun has never been used.


Ćirilometodska 2,
10 000 Zagreb, Croatia
Tel: +385 1 485 1021
e-mail: info@brokenships.com

Dispalys in Croatian and English

Summer (June 1st - September 30th):
Every day from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Winter (October 1st - May 31st):
Every day from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Closed Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Easter and All Saints' Day
December 24th and 31st open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Adults: 30 HRK (about $5)
Students (full-time with ID) & seniors (over 65): 20 HRK

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