At first glance, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Los Angeles seems more like a collection of household items than artifacts of heartbreak. In fact, if the space itself were any less posh, it would look like a yard sale. There's a Betty Boop plush doll opposite a dinosaur piñata; on one wall, a plain blue blouse is on display. But when you look closer, you notice that beside each object is a story about where it came from.
The museum, originally formed by artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić in Zagreb, Croatia, is now opening a second location in Los Angeles. Vištica and Grubišić were themselves a couple once, and the museum was designed as a way to "overcome [the] emotional collapse" of breaking up. The Los Angeles iteration sticks to this same theme. The museum's director Alexis Hyde and her staff sorted through more than 250 donated artifacts, each with their own sad tale, to create the museum as it can now be seen in its new Hollywood location.
"It might not look like it, but everything here is one of a kind," Hyde told me. "It's not priceless, but it's irreplaceable."
Once I began reading the stories for each object, it was hard not to think about the objects I've kept from my own broken relationships. Turns out, I don't have many. My most recent ex bought me a kit to make whip-its, which I never even used, and then asked for it back after we broke up. The closest thing I have to an object from a previous relationship, aside from a few pairs of underwear accidentally left behind in my apartment, is a photo from the time the guy I was dating peed my name on a sidewalk. It's not tangible, sure, but I still have that image saved on my phone, and I'll probably never delete it.
That's what's so fascinating about this place: It not only proves how universal heartbreak is, but more importantly, how universal it is to not want to let go. We invest so much of ourselves in relationships that when they're over, we need a souvenir—a reminder that it wasn't all for nothing. It feels unnatural to get to know someone so deeply, and let him or her get to know us deeply, then completely cut him or her out of our lives. These dispensable objects are a stand-in for our memories, and even the most painful ones can be difficult to surrender.
But the whole point of the Museum of Broken Relationships is that surrendering can be therapeutic.
"I've had people bring objects in person, and as they handed it to me have cried or been hesitant," Hyde told me. "I always ask, 'Are you sure?' And I see the relief that washes over them. They're happy to have let go of it, but it was a fight."
"Everything here is one of a kind. It's not priceless, but it's irreplaceable." — Alexis Hyde
Take the antique coffee grinder on display. "I sent him snail mail and a vinyl of Ella Fitzgerald's 'Dream a Little Dream of Me,' and he sent me an antique coffee grinder," reads the description. Then, according to the text, they ended up going to Iceland together before saying their final goodbyes at the airport (cue a Decembrists song as the credits roll). Other objects were tinged with neglect, deception, and betrayal. The blue blouse on display was worn by the woman who submitted it on the day her husband told her he was leaving her. In another part of the museum, there was a comic from a woman who explained: "I spent an entire summer making this birthday present, and he left it in my car."
It's hard not to put yourself into each of the stories, even if your own exes weren't nearly as romantic and/or terrible as the ones represented by the objects. A story that evoked anger in me might make another person feel hopeful, depending on how you see yourself in the story and how it makes you feel about your past relationships. "It's almost like a good abstract painting," Hyde told me.
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After snaking through the museum and reading the stories of real people being discarded and clinging to the objects that were left behind, I was on the verge of a panic attack. I mean this literally: My heart started racing, and I struggled to keep myself from breaking down and crying right in the middle of the museum. I kept asking myself, How do I avoid being one of these stories? Can I avoid it? At the same time, every object on display was a reminder that all relationships are doomed to fail.
I left the Museum of Broken Relationships feeling like I'd just left a therapy session. That's what's so important about a museum like this: The objects inside are both universal and deeply personal. And, hopefully, if I ever return, I'll see these objects and their stories in a whole new way, because I'll have a new perspective on my own love life.
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