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Museum of Broken Relationships puts heartbreak on display

The silver box is smaller than a tea tin. It is filled with carefully folded, handwritten love notes on school-lined paper. Someone has tenderly decorated the box with a black felt pen. "We love who we love and I love you" is one of the starry-eyed phrases inscribed on its side.

Alexis Hyde, the director of the Museum of Broken Relationships opening in Hollywood in May, holds the box gently before placing it alongside other potential exhibits. It glimmers beside a pale blue kimono worn while its former owner crouched beneath her boyfriend's window to catch him in flagrante. Another piece is in a large white envelope marked "Museum of B.R." It was sent with a heart-shaped Forever stamp, but someone has drawn an arrow pointing at the stamp and written "Not Forever."

"It's like those care packages you get at camp where people really spend time thinking about how to put it together," Hyde says of the objects that she and assistant director Amanda Vandenberg have collected.

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More than 1,000 pieces from around the world have come into the Museum of Broken Relationships since it called for submissions via its website about a week ago. The museum dates back a decade as a conceptual art installation in Zagreb, Croatia, by film producer Olinka Vištica and sculptor Drazen Grubisic after their own four-year relationship imploded. Interest was so great, the pair opened a museum in Zagreb in 2010. Items from the permanent collection have been exhibited through pop-up shows in 20 countries.

It took the enthusiasm of art collector John B. Quinn of the Los Angeles law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan to bring the concept permanently to the City of Angels. Quinn could not shake his viewing of the museum while on a family vacation to Zagreb a year ago, so he contacted Vištica and Grubišic, who licensed the museum's name and are lending a few of their greatest hits to the Hollywood opening.

"It's a museum that's crowd-sourced," Quinn says of the setup, which includes an item of mutual importance to a couple or small group of people — lovers, friends or family members — placed under glass and augmented with an informational placard that includes the location of the relationship, the inclusive dates of its span and the story behind the item. "Neither the object nor the story by themselves would be of much interest. It's the physical, tangible thing that this person has brought back from this emotional crisis coupled with the story that makes it powerful."

Despite its for-profit model and its location in the old Frederick's of Hollywood space on Hollywood Boulevard, down the street from kitschy tourist outposts including Ripley's Believe It or Not and Madame Tussauds museum of wax, the Museum of Broken Relationships is not a tongue-in-cheek proposition. Its organizers place great value on the emotional resonance of the items, which are meant to form a deceptively simple art project and a repository of human heartbreak.

Human heartbreak, however, is notoriously unreliable. When you've broken up with someone, facts get twisted, stories get exaggerated, memories become blurred. The museum has no way of verifying whether the stories that have been submitted are true, and it doesn't really care — as long as the intention feels genuine. This is not the Louvre. The Museum of Broken Relationships is a meta nod to the universality of love and loss, and the following it gathers can be credited to its self-referential nature.

"We, in a way, turned the convention of classical museums upside down," co-founder Vištica says by email from Zagreb, pointing out that traditionally, exhibition placards serve to provide factual information about the item on exhibit. The opposite happens inside the Museum of Broken Relationships. "The text next to the object carries the excitement, the enjoyment and the emotion."

There's comfort knowing that we're on the same emotional roller coaster when it comes to something as essential as the human encounter, she says. In this context the museum becomes less of a dusty archive and more an open place for sharing, where "people find solace and beauty in the company of stranger's stories."

That doesn't mean it's all serious. One striking thing about the museum is its contributors' often biting and irreverent sense of humor.

Take the legendary "Toaster of Vindication" from Boulder, Colo., that is housed in Zagreb. The placard beside it reads: "When you left I took the toaster. How are you going to toast anything now?"

The Los Angeles office has its hands full of similar wit — and sometimes more.

One woman wanted to submit her ex-boyfriend's belly button lint, assistant director Vandenberg says. The story accompanying the lint was "visually graphic," she adds.

"He would take it out and stick it to her when they were in bed," she says. Vandenberg even provided conservation instructions: "Because the submission is organic in nature be sure to package it correctly."


For the Record

An earlier version of this article said the person who submitted the belly button lint requested special packaging. It was the museum's assistant director who requested the special packaging.


The museum is not in the habit of turning down submissions unless they are racist, are blatantly cruel or contain information that makes protecting anonymity impossible. Size can also be prohibitive. A mattress was deemed too big to keep in the museum's storage, which is at Quinn's downtown law offices. A meat-smoker that a woman's ex-husband made for their anniversary (and that she left in the rain to rust after he was gone) made the cut.

"What do you do when your target demographic is everyone?" says Hyde, speaking to the universality of heartache and loss. "Not to get all existential about it, but what are we doing in this world? We are all searching. Every single person on the street is the hero of their own movie."

Which raises an important point about the museum's appeal, first to donors and then to viewers: The former get catharsis and the latter, voyeurism. The connection between the two is meant to be mutually satisfying.

"The Museum of Broken Relationships is an invitation to an empathetic journey to the depths of the human heart," Vištica said. "It is a testimony to our ultimate need for love and connection despite the difficulties that go with it. It is a desire to connect visitors in meaningful ways across growing divides of class, community and culture that seem to define our world."

If that doesn't work, there's always the "Exes Axe." It was used to chop up furniture left by a lost lover, but it could just as easily stand in as a metaphor for the museum itself: breaking painful emotional barriers with more than a little drama.


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