Normal art museums present visual artifacts that have aesthetic value. The Museum of Broken Relationships is not a normal art museum. It collects objects, 1343 as of 2014 (in the most recent catalogue) associated with falling out of love. A normal museum usually is organized historically, with wall labels indicating the title and provenance of the individual works. In this museum, which has an international collection, the relatively small objects, displayed in no obvious order, are each accompanied by a statement from the donor. Some of these commentaries are as short as two words, while a couple are a few pages long. As the donation form which is filled out by each donor indicates, the objects are presented anonymously. Like a normal museum, the museum of broken relationships has a shop and a cafe.
There are memorials to broken relationships of straight and gay couples, and people from varied nationalities, races and ages. And the artifacts exhibited here are very varied. In general, no detailed explanation is given why these relations failed. A relationship between an American diplomat and a British banker that only lasted one day is memorialized by a gingerbread cookie. Love between a Parisian and an Indonesia lasting 2 1/2 years was defined by a hockey puck. A London love affair is identified by 252 paper cranes. A two year long relationship ended by a sex change is related to Bob Dylan’s novel Tarantula. A sculpted frog was given by a mother to her three year old, 36 years ago when she left that child. Sometimes the objects presented to the museum were obviously meaningful for the broken relationship. A magnifying glass was given to someone who felt small when she was around the person she loved. And many of the objects are extremely sad. A pregnancy stick memorializes a child who died at 20 weeks. The parents write: “Life is hard, but joy and love make it worth the pain.” But a few exhibits have funny captions. A toaster is left by a lover, who asks her former partner: “How are you going to toast anything now?”
In normal art museums, we philosophers explain why the very varied artifacts, Buddhist sculptures, Islamic carpets, Chinese scrolls and European easel paintings, for example, all have some shared features that make them artworks. Our goal is to identify the shared aesthetic qualities of objects from varied visual cultures. Here, by contrast, any object whatsoever can in the right context memorialize a broken relationship. And while we don’t learn much about most of these people, it’s easy to feel very sad when you read many of their commentaries. How sorry I was to read about a mother, who died in 2006, after being too demanding, for 25 years. Her death, her child writes, was a liberation. Sometimes, however, joking maybe provided a welcome way of overcoming sadness. A nasal spray was left to the museum by some who wanted to stop the snoring of a partner, which prevented sleeping, and now could not sleep because of heartbreak over the end of their relationship.
When I read about this museum in the guidebooks to Zagreb, I knew that I wanted to visit it. Because I have written extensively about normal museums, I wanted to learn about this unusual museum. What, however, I didn’t anticipate was my surprisingly intense response to these stories, which all are about total strangers. Although my personal life has happily been long settled with stable relationships, I can hardly claim to be outside of the world of broken relationships. Who can? I recalled one scene, many decades ago, when with fury I discarded a vast pile of letters associated with a painful broken relationship. That was very long ago, so I was surprised when in this museum I remembered that story, started to cry, felt very embarrassed and so chose to leave. Few people cry when viewing the paintings in normal art museums. Even when I view a most affecting artwork, some painting that means a great deal to me, I never respond by crying. Tears are for people, not objects. A very few old master and contemporary paintings changed my intellectual life, inspiring me to write about then obsessively. But I don’t cry when I see them. None of the objects at the museum of broken relationships are especially attractive. If you saw them in the trash, most probably you would keep walking. Certain I would. And none of these stories about broken relationships are very unusual. But of course, usually strangers don’t tell us about their sorrows. As I indicated earlier, almost everyone (even the happiest most settled people) have broken relationships. Why then do these objects from strangers inspire intense reactions? I thought a lot after my visit about that question.
What takes place in this museum, it seems to me, is an activity of projection. Just as erotic artworks prompt sexual feelings, and sacred works religious beliefs: so these memorials to the broken relationships of strangers inspire personal recollections. Seeing a router from an incompatible San Francisco couple; the print out star spectrum from one Chinese astronomer to another; or a little rubber piggy, a joke given to an Israeli Jew by a Dane: I think of my own very different experiences of broken relationships. And that’s so I imagine what almost everyone does, which is why this museum is popular. Here it is impossible to have a purely aesthetic response to the display.
In Franz Kafka’s Amerika (1911-14), that amazing product of a writer living in the Austro-Hungarian empire, you read of an imaginary institution in America. Anyone could be hired to work for the radically democratic Theater of Oklahoma. What a strange fantasy about America! The Museum of Broken Relationships, in a city which for a long time belonged to that Austro-Hungarian empire, and then was part of Yugoslavia, a country that more recently was very painfully dissembled, is heir to that Kafkaesque tradition. And while art museums struggle to justify the choice of objects included in their collections, in this radically egalitarian institution anyone’s memorial to a broken relationship can be displayed. The idea behind this museum is simple and maybe even a little silly. But the effect is striking and highly instructive. And it does raise some interesting, very important questions. Why does love characteristically involve attachments to physical objects? Could there be object-free love in a communist utopia?
At any rate, when you fall our of love, it’s natural often to discard the possessions given to you by the once loved one. That’s what I’ve usually done. Could there be a complimentary museum gathering things that bring people together? I suppose that it would be hard to create a ’museum of successful relationships’, for when people stay together they preserve their bonding elements.
Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Art as Therapy (2013) presents a relevant idiosyncratic aesthetic. And Joachim Pissarro and I have published two books about art like this outside the art world: Wild Art (2013) and Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (2018). My quotations come from Museum of Broken Relationships. A Diary (2014).