When a relationship disintegrates, your first instinct might be to chuck your partner’s belongings out the window. When Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic broke up more than 20 years ago, however, the Croatian couple came up with a different idea. A computer, television, and vacation souvenirs all proved easy to sort, but one particular object was too painful: a small fluffy rabbit, which the couple would often wind up and send hopping around their house. They decided it was inappropriate for either of them to keep it, sparking a lightbulb moment for Vistica: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a place where everyone could send objects after a breakup?”
The Museum of Broken Relationships, a global archive of mementos from failed romances, was born. Since opening in the Croatian capital Zagreb in 2010, the museum has become one of the Eastern European country’s quirkiest—and most visited—tourist attractions.
Lovesick donors anonymously mail in objects invested with human emotion ranging from mundane and humorous to gripping and poignant. One person submitted a toaster spitefully pilfered from a former partner. Another sent in a 37-year-old slice of wedding cake. Other donations include a garden gnome chucked at an ex-husband’s car, unused acupuncture pens, and even a surgically excised gallstone caused by a stressful paramour. “In the beginning, we were worried we’d just get items from summer flings, but the stories soon went deep,” Vistica tells the New York Times. “We’ve got items from the Second World War, about terrorism. Some of it’s heavy, but life’s heavy.”
The museum maintains a permanent outpost in Zagreb but has embarked on global tours to mount satellite shows, sharing stories with and amassing new objects from Argentina, Germany, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, and the United States. Grubisic delights in the donations’ similarities across regions. “It doesn’t matter about religion, race, culture, or economic situation,” he tells Westword. “[The objects and stories] come down to people and feelings, and those are mostly the same. If you’re in a happy relationship, you’ll feel even better about it. If you’re in a broken one, you’ll see that you’re really not alone.”
Beyond symbolizing love lost, the objects can also provide a personal lens into a country’s social or political context. While fighting for Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia in the early ‘90s, a soldier was admitted to a Zagreb hospital after losing his leg. There he fell in love with a “beautiful, young, and ambitious social worker” from the Ministry of Defense who helped him gather materials to create a below-knee prosthesis. “The prosthesis endured longer than our love,” his testimonial reads. “It was made of sturdier material.” Other objects can extend beyond romantic relationships, some echoing self-love: one woman hoped her post-mastectomy donation of two bras might “recover the relationship with my body.”
When the museum emailed one donor to let him know they were displaying two pebbles he and his former lover found, he said the couple had fallen back in love after seven years apart. (Vistica and Grubisic have a policy against returning items, but the donor didn’t want them back.) The museum itself is a testament to how relationships evolve over time: Grubisic admits he and Vistica are much better off as business partners.