The Museum of Broken Relationships, breaking conventions

In 2011 The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb was awarded the Kenneth Hudson Prize for Most Innovative Museum in Europe. I visited it in December 2013.

IMG_4199But is The Museum of Broken Relationships really a museum, I asked myself? I mean, seriously?

Probably not seriously but, yes, a museum, albeit one teetering on the brink of definitions in a rather attractive way. It is certainly a good day out.

It looks like a museum. It is a collection of objects displayed with explanatory texts – that certainly sounds like a museum. But in most museums the objects are the primary currency, the labels tell their story. (Or so we say, as if there was one story adhering to any object.)

The museum displays a curious range of objects that make no senses until ...

The museum displays a curious range of objects that make no sense until …

... until you read the accompanying text.

… until you read the accompanying text.

But, here, in the Museum of Broken Relationships that familiar relationship, appropriately enough, breaks down. Here the story is the most important element. And there is definitely only one story  – that of the person whose relationship ended, told in their own words, in their own terms. An object that illustrates the story, chosen by the narrator accompanies the object.

IMG_4109IMG_4107In Zagreb’s Archaeological Museum I looked at how museums can use illustrations to draw visitors into a more direct, unmediated relationship with artefacts. That doesn’t work here. Here knowing what the objects are is banal, obvious and meaningless.  The museum is a collection of deliberately discarded objects – rubbish in fact.

The stories are the point. These accounts of relationships remembered, sometimes with wit, sometimes regret, longing, sorrow or gratitude are what this museum is about.

The place of the objects in this is ambiguous. They are the focus of the stories. It seems to me that the selection of an object to represent the lost relationship triggered the storytelling and gave it a structure.  The objects also help the visitor, walking the galleries is a bit like a quiz – constantly asking, ‘why on earth …?’, ‘why did someone choose … ?’ and being drawn into another human story.

It is a fascinating visit. Like most visitors I read almost everything. The tales were compelling, jaw-dropping, eye-watering, hair-raising.  I am sure some stories were censored but nonetheless much of this is adult stuff.

Insignificant objects ...

Insignificant objects …

... become redolent with emotion and meaning.

… become redolent with emotion and meaning.

My favourite moment was when my friend (and erstwhile guest blogger) Janja exclaimed ‘O M G! This woman has given her wedding album‘. Suddenly myself and the other two women gathered round, looked at it and all started laughing (I like to think in four different languages). I  am not sure what we were doing but it felt like recognition of audacity was a part of it.

I realised then that the vast majority of visitors were women visiting alone or in pairs. I wondered if that is usual. I wondered whether this was an attraction that appealed to Zagreb’s hen party market – and pitied the bride-to-be.

The Museum of Broken Relationships actually is probably not a museum by most the definitions that I would use. In fact it merrily subverts many the assumptions that underpin museums. It collections are based on personal, not cultural, significance.  In this  crowd-sourced, user-generated content the narratives are more valuable, and maybe more worthy of preservation and curation than the objects.

I laughed much more than I do in most museum visits. I cried and gasped more too. The Museum of Museum Relationships also made me think – about barriers, conventions, definitions and innovations. I am so very pleased to have seen it.

I shall remember the story with the axe forever. I have told it many times. If you want to know it you will have to visit the museum.

I shall remember the story with the axe forever. I have told it many times. If you want to know it you will have to visit the museum.

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About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
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