At the Museum of Broken Relationships, I took a stroll through other people’s donated memories…and I was not prepared to feel this way.
Stack of books. Stuffed teddy bear. Old sweater. Diet guide. Woman’s slip and thong. Trophy. Diapers. Old cellphone. Pair of jeans. Rusty Jeep. On the surface these items have little meaning, but when you attach a memory and an emotion to such items, they develop into something entirely different.
The meaning you imbue them with makes it much harder to discard them from your life. You could send them to a landfill, but it’s painful to send something sentimental to decay amid banana peels and old tires. We may never be able to erase the memory of someone or something, but there is a place that will hold on to them for us. Our emotional artifacts can have a lifelong home at the Museum of Broken Relationships, where the stories are on display for all to experience, safe from the banana peels.
Discovering the Museum of Broken Relationships
What began as a traveling exhibition has grown to have two permanent locations, one in Zagreb, Croatia, and the other in Los Angeles, California. But the Museum of Broken Relationships has not stopped holding exhibits around the world, collecting new stories and items along the way. That’s how I found it: on Jeju Island in South Korea at the Arario Museum. To be completely honest, it is one of the reasons I decided to visit the Hawaii of South Korea — I’m a sucker for funny relationship stories with an edge.
Housed on four floors of the museum, the Broken Relationships exhibit surprised me. It’s not just about failed romances, funny dates or how not to break up with someone. In fact, it deals with all kinds of emotional connections and relationships. Carrying an e-reader provided by the Arario Museum, I began my journey through people’s thoughts, feelings, accomplishments, failures and many other memories. I was not prepared.
Ride the Emotional Roller Coaster
Taking the journey through the Museum of Broken Relationships is an experience unlike any other art-space encounter. Each item on display has a simple marker with a number, title, date(s) and location. Without the accompanying e-reader, you’d think you were walking through a secondhand store. An item’s story may be one line, a short paragraph or pages of narrative. Some are humorous, others incredibly sad, but each and every one strikes an emotional chord. Empathy, it seems, is impossible to resist within the museum’s walls.
I found myself reading the intimate details of anonymous people’s lives and instantly finding correlations to my own or those close to me. Tales of broken homes, failed long-distance relationships, domestic abuse, gifts that made a woman realize her boyfriend knew nothing about her, a daughter who missed her alcoholic father, a mother mourning the loss of her young son, a manuscript that would never be published, and a writer who lost his passion for the craft after turning it into a career. (That last one continues to haunt me.)
Without warning, every memory and emotion you keep buried away bubbles to the surface as you wander the exhibit. Your past and current relationships with lovers and family members, successes and failures you’ve had in your career, places you’ve visited, mistakes you’ve made (or wish you had) — they all come to you in a tidal wave that only a good therapist or strong drink can subdue.
Amid the emotionally wrenching items on display are also those filled with humor and success. A woman reciting the happiness she finds in dance, another gleefully discarding a pair of jeans that don’t fit because she has grown to love and appreciate her body. A man’s story of a wig his ex-girlfriend sent to him after they split as a reminder of the fantasy he’ll never play out with her by his side. Helping bring the laughter are love incense that failed to deliver, an erotic head massager that should not be returned, and a bottle of intimate shampoo that is great at cleaning glass.
Everyone will perceive the exhibit differently, as each item evokes a personal, intimate response. At the same time, it is a shared experience. You become a part of people’s memories. You lose yourself in their emotions and discover that we are not so different after all. People from all over the world make similar life choices, they feel the same emotions when something happens to them, and they all need a place to purge.
The free coffee the museum throws in at the end does little to calm the nerves, but it does give you time to compose yourself before reentering the outside world.
Your F**king Jacket and the Need to Purge
Multitalented artist Lorene Scafaria created one of my favorite songs, “Your F**king Jacket.” It tells the story of a woman who keeps her ex’s jacket on the back of a door after their breakup. The jacket spends a great deal of time there as a memory of the relationship they once shared, before it finds a new purpose. The song feels like it was written specifically for the Museum of Broken Relationships. Because when you leave the museum, you’ve found the freedom to dispose of or repurpose possessions that hold you back emotionally.
I don’t have one of my ex’s jackets hanging in the closet, but I do have a ring tucked away in a box, buried so deep I never actually have to come across it. It’s been over 15 years since I took the ring off my finger, but its lingering presence remains. The emotionally charged memories the ring holds are bittersweet, agonizing, full of love and compassion, honesty and deceit and, perhaps most importantly, an irreplaceable friendship. It is my reminder of something special I left behind in order to find a future all my own. It was not until I saw how others were able to let go of the past in order to begin anew by sharing their artifacts of relationships lost that I found the courage to follow in their footsteps — and avoid a visit to the pawnshop, as has been suggested to me time and time again.
My ring is going to have a new home at the Museum of Broken Relationships. The accompanying story will likely have only one line attached to it, but you’ll have to visit the collection to find out what it says.
If you were to donate an item to the Museum of Broken Relationships, what would it be and what would the description say?