Love comes here to die: Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships

The quirky museum is a repository of love’s wreckage—a love letter here, a wedding dress there, voodoo dolls, an axe, and the occasional stolen toaster.

Zagreb is a small city, everyone tells me. The receptionist at my hotel, the lady at the shoe store, the Uber driver that miraculously didn’t cancel, the vendor that sold me fritule (Croatian donuts) at the Christmas market.   

It’s small but the capital is also the largest city in Croatia whose population hovers just below 4 million. Incredibly, Zagreb has more than 30 museums, all dedicated to preserving an aspect of history. You have museums for the natural world, automobiles, archeology, technology, mushrooms, and hangovers or “the museum closest to your liver” that features the funniest hangover stories and things people wake up with (hookers not included).

When ex-lovers are finally able to let go of these artifacts, they are sent here to be part of a collection of everyday objects. Maybe it’s a kind of therapy—or a final “Fuck you!”

Zagreb’s historic district is divided into Lower Town and Upper Town. The former is alive with music, the sound of children’s laughter wafting in the squares on Sunday, bars, cafes, monuments and shops; the latter, the historic heart of the city, is a more quiet area.

History whispers on this hill, reveals its secrets in narrow cobblestone streets. On such a street is inarguably Zagreb’s most famous museum: The Museum of Broken Relationships.

Everyone in Zagreb knows about this museum. What looks like a former house is now a gallery of failed relationships—a love letter here, a parachute rig there, a leg prosthesis, a wedding dress sealed in a jar, love letters, a shock of hair, handcuffs, rings, postcards, an exercise bike, a corkscrew, books, stuffed toys, an axe, and the occasional stolen toaster.

Love’s wreckage

The Toaster of Vindication, sent from Denver, Colorado, a remnant from a four-year relationship.
Photos by Tanya Lara
The Action Man, sent from Basel, Switzerland

The museum is a graveyard for lost love, if you will. When ex-lovers are finally able to let go of these ruins, they are sent here to be part of a collection of everyday objects that are sometimes exhibited in different parts of the world.

Maybe it’s a kind of therapy—or a final “Fuck you!”

Whatever the motivation of the donors, they are letting the public into a secret world of tenderness and spite, at turns sad and funny. The description of each object is written by the sender—and it’s not always a spurned lover (but the funniest ones are) despite the enormous amount of spite. One is from a child who witnessed the enduring love of his parents, some are from friends, some are objects belonging to strangers even.

The Museum of Broken Relationships was founded by former lovers, Croatian filmmaker Olinka Vištica and sculptor Dražen Grubišić, whose love affair ran its course after four years. Olinka remembers that day when they called it quits.

“In a house that seemed to have already been split down the middle, we took to sitting almost without speech at the kitchen table trying to overcome the feeling of loss and quietly surrender to the end of love,” she writes in the book accompanying the collection. “When we spoke, we spoke gently as if trying to not disturb the bandage on a newly opened wound.”

Like all lovers whose lives first mingle and then eventually merge, their home was filled with personal effects, “the remains of our four years gawking at us from every corner of the house. Even the kitchen table where we sat was loaded with meaning and memories that were doomed to fade away along with out shattered relationship.”

Olinka rails against love experts that “want us to get rid of every merciless reminder of our washed-out love, of yet another defeat, of yet another failure. Libraries and virtual space are flooded with advice for attaining oblivion. But is total erasure the only way out?”

How it started

The Museum of Broken Relationships is located in Zagreb’s Upper Town, the heart of the city’s historic district.

Olinka and Dražen first introduced the museum in 2006 as an installation at a local art festival. Forty objects entrusted by their friends were displayed in a ship container with personal stories written by the owners. “Stories that once had meaning to only two souls immediately resonated with an audience, strangers that recognized that heartache all too well.”

Pretty soon the project snowballed into a traveling exhibit, making stops in 20 countries in cities such as Berlin, San Francisco, Ljubljana and Singapore. There are now two permanent museums in the world: in Zagreb, which the couple opened in 2010, and Los Angeles, which they opened in 2016.     

“People have embraced the act of exhibiting their emotional legacy as a sort of ritual, a solemn ceremony. Our society acknowledges marriages, funerals, and even graduations but denies us any formal occasion to recognize the demise of a relationship.”

Despite its name, the museum is a tribute to the inexplicable resilience of the heart. And we all know from experience how this story goes: betrayed and lied to many times but still yearning, then pounded to submission, still  giving until there is nothing left to give even to one’s self.

The collection

One of a few wedding dresses in the collection; another is sealed in a glass jar
A father’s haori from Tokyo

They are all objects of untangling—203 of them (some in storage). On an ordinary day inside the love affair, one might not even notice them as they lie dormant around the house or perhaps hidden in a shoebox in the closet. In the unraveling of the relationship, their significance becomes clear and then unbearable that the ex-lovers send them to the museum.  

“The toaster of vindication” was sent by someone from Denver, Colorado who had ended a four-year relationship. “When I moved out, and across the country, I took the toaster. That’ll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?”

A widow from Helsinki sent a parachute rig with the description: “I met him on my first parachute jump. I was really scared but this handsome man, who was my tandem jump instructor, ‘saved’ me. Later he helped teach me to jump solo. We loved to play in the sky, and we loved each other. Then he died in a parachute accident.”   

A mobile phone from Zagreb, which to me is harsher than any of the breakup souvenirs: “It was 300 hundred days too long. He gave me his mobile phone so I couldn’t call him anymore.”

Suddenly he was gone. I found a goodbye note and this little statue, which he said he had specifically brought from Peru in the hope of meeting a new love. What he didn’t know was that I had once opened his bag and found a whole plastic bag full of these bottles. I never saw him again.

A holy water bottle shaped as the Virgin Mary from Amsterdam was the souvenir from a two-month relationship. “Suddenly he was gone. I found a goodbye note and this little statue, which he said he had specifically brought from Peru in the hope of meeting a new love. What he didn’t know was that I had once opened his bag and found a whole plastic bag full of these bottles. I never saw him again.”

There is a checkbook from 2006 from a woman that says, “I was in love with my ex-husband for 22 years until he divorced me. (The checkbook) tells the story of, and is a record of, one of the most psychologically, emotionally, and financially damaging experiences of my life.” It is a record of payments to two psychologists, two lawyers, a psychiatric ward, travels, a car accident, two separate apartments—a chronicle of the “financial splintering” of their time together.

A champagne cork that a woman kept after she found out her fiancé was cheating on her, symbolizing her “escape.” A Galileo thermometer from a 10-month relationship (6 passionate, 4 heartbreaking) in Taiwan, given to her on her 20th birthday. A magnetic chessboard sent from Tallin, “made in China, brought in London, traveled to four corners of the world, left to oblivion in France, abandoned in Belgium.” And now in Zagreb.  

Two pairs of bras, 1960s to 2011, from Grantham, UK
A holy water bottle from Peru, from a two-month affair that started as a one-night stand

The book I Can Make You Thin: “This was a present from my ex-fiancé…Need I really continue?”

A book from the school library that a girl shared with her crush for a class project, where  she scratched the secret message “I am in love with you, R. If you feel the same way, meet me at the small lake in the woods on January 13. I’ll be waiting.” He never showed. But months later, during a bar fight, she jumped in to defend him. “While I was in bed for two months, recovering from my injuries, he took off with my best friend.”

An axe that a guy from Berlin used when his girlfriend had an affair with a girl when he went to the US for work, and left him when he got back. “I kicked her out, and she immediately went on vacation with her new girlfriend while her furniture stayed with me. Not knowing what to do with my anger, I finally bought this axe. Every day, over the 14 days of her vacation, I chopped up one piece of her furniture. I kept the remains there, as an expression of my inner condition. The more the room filled with fragments of wood, acquiring the look of my soul, the better I felt. And so the axe was promoted to a therapy instrument.”

There is a set of three voodoo dolls from San Francisco that an artist made from articles of clothing he collected his from lovers and one-night stands. A collection of Brazilian Playboy magazines that an ex in Sao Paolo had promised to come back for but never did.

A carpenter’s oddly shaped tool that a daughter from Brussels sent after her parents passed away. It belonged to her father and no one knew what it was for, not even the undertaker (who was also a carpenter) who helped sort her father’s tools in the basement.

An unopened candy G-string from a woman in Wintherthur, Switzerland who was dumped via email. “After four years, he turned out to be as cheap and shabby as his presents.” An iron from Stavanger, Norway: “This iron was used to iron my wedding suit. Now it is the only thing left.”

The spectrum from a star on the day the lover was bornVoodoo dolls from San Francisco

Frog figures that were the only remaining Christmas presents from a mother who left her family (sent by her daughter). A French ID from a relationship from 1980 to 1998:  “The only thing left of a great love was citizenship.”

A printed spectrum from a star in the Orion constellation, sent by one-half of an astronomer couple. “He said, ‘Look at the time you were born, the light left this star, passing through the endless interstellar space, the countless dust and nebula, arriving here after a 26-light year journey. So have you. Here you meet your star-light, and I meet you.’”

Jesus! Will your heart not collide with your brain at this—like an asteroid and a comet in the vast, infinite space?

There is a ball of lint somewhere here, lit and encased in glass, as if it was the most important thing in the world. It reminded me of a suitcase I once didn’t have the heart to unpack because it truly signaled the end of an affair. It lay on my bedroom floor for months until one day I emptied it, turned the damn thing over, and repeatedly clapped it on its back until not event lint from woolen sweaters remained. And yet, when the boarding pass from Stanstead Airport in England to Prague came falling from a pocket, I sat on the floor and cried.

I remember this now after many years because it was one of the few honest relationships that I had the courage to walk away from the moment I needed to walk away from it. We were visiting his mother in the English countryside and read our books in front of the fireplace in the evenings. We had shepherd’s pie at his sister’s house. She was reading a book of letters from the trenches of World War 1 and I sat, fascinated and impressed, at the intellect of this family.

“I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of you,” his sister said.      

They didn’t. Even the pictures are gone now.

The new lifestyle.