Olinka Vistica’s Museum of Broken Relationships

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We’ve all been heartbroken before. Young or old, we’ve all experienced the pain of a lost love.

One of the most difficult parts of moving on is letting go of those relics that remind you of your long-gone loved on. Whether it’s a shoebox under your bed filled with homemade mixed tapes, or a sweater hanging in your closet that you used to love so much, but can now never bring yourself to put on. It’s understandable, you don’t want to throw them out because they’re soaked with so much memory, but you also can’t stand to even look at them anymore.

What can you do? How can you move on without forgetting your past? Is there a way to rid yourself of such painful items, but also honor them?

Yes, yes there is.

In 2010 a museum opened that memorialized thousands of objects donated by strangers that told heartbreaking stories. It was called the Museum of Broken Relationships and it opened up in Zagreb, Croatia. Created by Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic, two artists who dated for four years, but broke up in 2003. It was made as a personal means of therapy for the two to get through their own breakup, and it started as a traveling exhibition. It gained so much popularity that it turned into a permanent museum.

Anyone can submit through an online form through the website. The relics range from fuzzy handcuffs with a heartbreaking narrative, to a toaster with a humorous tragedy, or even a drawer full of mix tapes with romantic backgrounds—each accompanied by their own story of love and loss.

An MoBR is going to be opening up in Hollywood, CA by Amanda Vandnberg and Alexis Hyde this May and is currently accepting submissions online.

As the poet Alfred Tennyson once wrote, “’tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” and this museum enforces just that! BTRtoday speaks with artist and co-founder Olinka Vistica about the museum and whether it contributes to heartbreak or aids in helping an individual to move on.

BTRtoday (BTR): Tell me about your relationship history and how you were able to manifest it into this art show that eventually turned into a museum.

Olinka Vistica (OV): Museum of Broken Relationships (MoBR) started as conceptual art installations in the framework of an art show in Zagreb [Croatia] with my artistic partner Dražen Grubišić—our own relationship ending inspired it. We were looking for ways to say goodbye to each other, how to overcome the pain connected to our relationship, and how to keep the good times alive. We came up with the idea to store the objects from our time together that were just too painful for us to keep. A few friends who had also endured break-ups decided to contribute some items as well.

We displayed them anonymously in a ship container, using our stories and memories of the objects as the artist statement. We named it the “Museum of Broken Relationships.” The installation immediately caught the attention of the international audience. This simple idea snowballed over the years into an international traveling show that still goes on and enriches the collection with new objects and stories. In 2010, we decided to found a permanent place, a brick and mortar museum in Zagreb that houses our collection ever since.

BTR: What has this project taught you?

When I look back now, what I have learned about relationships is that people (and objects alike) can never be totally discarded or forgotten. Throughout this journey we call life we’re constantly trying to make sense of experiences and emotions when connecting to different people who have, at some point in time, been our companion.

BTR: How have people been reacting to the MoBR so far?

OV: The objects in the museum work just as memory triggers—everyday mundane token displayed are loaded with meaning for at least two torn individuals. What makes the object poignant is the personal, autobiographical narrative connected to it. These relatable narratives blurred by time and the process of memory, have proved to have an immense power in engaging our visitors. We feel like, in a way, we’ve turned the convention of classical museums upside-down.

Traditionally in museums the art placards serve to give factual information about the objects exhibited. The object itself or a work of art has the emotional power to resonate with the visitor. In the Museum of Broken Relationships the opposite happens: the text next to the object carries the excitement, the enjoyment and the emotional roller coaster the provider contributes.

Reading the placards that not only describe the relationship the object is connected to, but also the emotions it provoked, places the viewer in that temporary relationship between the object, the story and the visitor and something magical happens! The viewers experience something like their own relationship happening right there in a public space. Every one of us is familiar with the feelings of heartbreak, loss, and the loneliness left in their trail.

That is the universal key that opens the heart of each visitor, curious enough to cross the threshold of the MoBR with no prejudice.

BTR: What do you want people to get out of this project?

OV: When leaving the museum one thought will probably linger in the visitor’s mind: the recognition of how alike people really are when it comes to matters of love, loss and pain. There is comfort in knowing that we are all on the same emotional roller coaster when it comes to something so vital, so essential as the human encounter, its highs and lows. A museum becomes less of a dusty archive and more of an open space for sharing. It is a public place where people find solace and beauty in the company of stranger’s stories.

BTR: What’s in store for the future of the museum?

OV: The act of artistic creation and building of museum collections are definitely the last possible public resorts for the preservation and interpretation of the individual people’s experiences, subjective views, introspective, subconscious and even mystical content, which is hard to capture and preserve in the hectic world we live in.

When thinking about the future and what kind of content we leave to the new generations as our legacy, museums have an enormous responsibility, which includes showing empathy and playing part in managing societies’ emotional crisis. I truly hope that the example of the MoBR can continue to grow and demonstrate how we can build these oases, safe territories for self-reflection, empathy, imagination, and observe in a historical and cultural perspective.

All of that said I don’t have a planned future for the museum. It has long ago started to live its own life and it is in a great way developed by people who participate in the collection or visit the museum. Its concept is pure, simple and straightforward. You do not need any previous knowledge or interpretation to understand it. MoBR is an open invitation to an empathetic journey to the depths of the human heart. It’s a testimony to our ultimate need for love and connection, despite the difficulties that go with it.

I can only hope that in the future it will continue to connect visitors in meaningful ways across growing divides of class, community, and culture that seem to define our world.

BTR: What are some of the objects the museum receives and their stories that come with them like?

OV: There are so many powerful objects and stories. At the beginning we feared we would end up buried with wedding dresses, love letters, rings or teddy bears. However, from the start of the MoBR to this day we are still amazed at the variety of the objects and stories. The first thing that comes to my mind now is a gall bladder stone submitted in Slovenia almost ten years ago. Another was a SUV jeep that has just been donated in Korea for the exhibition that will start in the first week of May. I could go on for hours about them. Every new envelope or package you open is a mystery, that can instantly connect you to the life of a teenager in a remote Indian village, or you can be profoundly moved by a secret relationship of a senior woman in Richmond, Virginia. You never know!

BTR: Do you have a favorite story?

OV: The objects that touch you the most are often those of the people who personally entrusted you with a part of their lives.

For example, in Amsterdam we were invited to a home of an amazing man who entrusted us with a joyful, huge painting representing him and two other men in an intricate threesome relationship. His story ended with a quote: “Don’t let death stop you from traveling.” It will resonate with us forever knowing that its donor silently passed away just a day after the exhibition opened. I feel as if we are on a mission now, a promise we have to keep by touring the world with this painting that we put up last week on the walls of the Helsinki City Museum.

On the other hand, there are of course objects that seduce you with their sharp humor. One object that has already become somewhat legendary at the museum is the “Toaster of Vindication,” from Boulder, Colorado. Its story read: “When you left I took the toaster. How are you going to toast anything now?” The museum in Zagreb is so often echoing with laughter thanks to these lines. I also love the stories that excel in their narrative bios, like a two page on-and-off affair description that came with seven olive pits.

BTR: What is your artistic background?

OV: I don’t have scholarly artistic training. I have a degree in English and French studies of language and literature. I’ve always been fascinated by books, storytelling and writing. I’ve worked as a producer in contemporary dance and am still running a film production company in parallel with the museum.

I never cared about the medium of expression—this is why I end up doing so many different projects at once. However, one thing has always been clear to me: I wanted to create things that matter to people, that people can understand, connect to, and feel the comfort the art has the potential to provide.

BTR: What other art projects have you done?

OV: I have been working mainly as a producer in my own company (Hulahop.hr) and have directed international film festivals in Croatia. The MoBR has opened a new path for me—I realized in practice how an idea written on a piece of paper, like, “all your ships have sunk,” can come to life and grow in the ways you have never dreamed of.

BTR: How do you think the U.S. public is going to react to the museum opening up in LA?

OV: The experience of the touring exhibitions across the US and the pieces we have collected there from San Francisco to Boise (seven exhibitions so far) are sort of announcing that the permanent museum in LA would be a fabulous new stage for people to express relinquished passions, fiery adventures, dreams and regrets. LA is such an amazing, multicultural city—a city of dreams and hopes for so many people. It’s undoubtedly a great canvas for people’s stories. I am hoping the museum is going to unveil to the people of LA and its visitors an intimate landscape most people are unaware of.