Out of all the items on display in the museum – the faded love letters, the discarded clothing, the tiny trinkets symbolizing some forgotten affection – it was one that I didn’t anticipate: a simple, unremarkable green coffee mug, that almost brought me to my knees. Of course, it wasn’t really the mug at all that did it, but rather, the story that accompanied it; a story of a downward spiral into toxic, codependent love, a story both foreign and familiar, marked by the author’s stubborn insistence that if he simply stayed in the relationship, it would eventually get better. It didn’t, of course. Those types of relationships never do.
I wasn’t sure what to expect on the quiet Thursday afternoon I visited the Museum of Broken Relationships, the newly erected monument to love and loss located in the heart of Hollywood. But as I wandered through the museum’s open, airy space, its clean, modern décor, simple, straightforward lighting, and minimalist glass display cases all designed to give each object and its accompanying narrative maximum impact, I quickly fell into a sort of reverent silence, awed by the sheer vulnerability and bravery of each of the personal stories shared within its walls.
Originally conceived by Drazen Grubisic and Olinka Vistica, two Croatian artists in the midst of their own relationship breakup, the Museum of Broken Relationships (or “Broken Ships,” as it is commonly referred to on the museum’s various social media sites) began as a traveling art installation, eventually settling into a permanent home in Zagreb in 2010. After visiting the museum while on vacation in Croatia, Los Angeles-based attorney John B. Quinn approached Grubisic and Vistica about opening an exhibition in L.A., perhaps because, as the museum’s website proclaims, Los Angeles is “a city of dreams – many realized and many not – which often leave broken relationships in their wake.”
While the museum’s Los Angeles location on Hollywood Blvd. (representing, for many, its own sort of boulevard of broken dreams), certainly does showcase plenty of tales of heartache, they’re not always the parables about love that you might expect. Stories of romantic love gone awry do appear in abundance, but all different types of love and loss are represented at Broken Ships: the loss of a life-long friendship, the abandonment of a child at the hands of a parent, the death of a beloved pet, the destruction and devastation that ensues while in the grip of addiction and substance abuse.
And though the museum’s artifacts range from the more obvious (letters and photographs, an engagement ring, a sad, stuffed teddy bear) to the more unique (a vintage cheerleading uniform, a plastic bag full of belly button lint – I know, gross – a pair of iridescent butterfly wings), it’s really the autobiographical stories that accompany each object that take center stage. Though donors are protected by anonymity, it does make one wonder what would prompt someone to share such personal (and often, devastating) details from their lives for public consumption. The museum’s website offers this as an answer:
“Most people have kept some object, memento or souvenir somewhere that, because of its meaning, they do not want to throw away . . . Giving it to the Museum provides a donor with an opportunity to tell their story anonymously and share it with others. The reasons for doing so may range from therapeutic relief to simple closure.”
But out of all the exhibits in the museum, my favorite part of Broken Ships had to be “The Confessional,” a gently illuminated nook tucked away in the museum’s back corner, where visitors were invited to jot down their most intimate thoughts in a large, leather-bound journal. And boy, did they ever. The oversized book was filled with page after page of personal commentary, some funny, some angry, some gut-wrenchingly sad. I have to admit: I got a certain voyeuristic thrill from reading the uncensored humanity spilled out across those pages. And one of the most striking things I noticed was the way that people commented on other entries, forming a sort of conversational thread. Reading them made me feel a surge of hope, because the prevailing comments ended up being words of sweet support and encouragement, things like, “Yeah, leave that jerk!” or “I promise you, love does exist.”
I’ve heard a lot of my Los Angeles friends say that they think a museum of this nature would too depressing to visit, but I didn’t walk away from my afternoon there feeling depressed. Yes, absorbing so many personal tales of woe was emotionally draining, but a lot of the stories were funnier than I thought they’d be, tinged with the type of dark humor that often accompanies our most painful memories. And even among those who contributed the most heart-wrenching stories of loss, there was still a desire to love again, and the persistent belief that they would go on to find a better, healthier relationship. If the exhibits in the Museum of Broken Relationships had a unifying theme, it was that of survival, and of redemption. Many of the donors seemed to recognize that their bad relationship choices were made out of insecurity or a lack of self-respect, and that until they were able to embrace the most important love of all – love of self – they’d never truly be able to give their heart to anyone else.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.brokenships.la