The museum of broken relationships
Declan Cashin visits a unique touring exhibition of souvenirs of heartbreak from around the world.
What becomes of the broken-hearted? And, more to the point, what becomes of all the stuff they leave behind? One option might be to offload that detritus of failed relationships -- the random objects and keepsakes of little, if any, intrinsic worth but which are loaded with meaning -- to a museum of heartbreak.
'The Museum of Broken Relationships' is a touring exhibition now in London's Covent Garden.
It invites the heartbroken to donate items associated with a failed relationship, marriage, romance or fling, rather than throwing them out, keeping them hidden away at the back of the closet, or burning them in a drunken ceremonial ritual with sympathetic friends.
These items are then incorporated into the permanent exhibition in Zagreb, Croatia, where a pair of artists and former lovers (left), Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic, first curated the museum.
The tour came to Ireland two summers ago, setting up in Kilkenny for the city's annual arts festival, and indeed one of the donations from a Marble City resident -- a graffiti can used to spray a declaration of love on a wall -- is on display in the travelling show right now.
The idea behind the museum, according to its organisers, is to offer "the chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation, unlike 'destructive' self-help instructions for recovery from failed loves".
Everywhere the museum has travelled, there has been a strong and enthusiastic local response, presumably in gratitude for the gift of ritualistic 'closure' on past loves that the collection provides.
Walking around the exhibits last weekend, voyeuristically poking around at other people's pain, the question that stayed in my mind was: is it really better to have loved and lost?
There's certainly a healthy inflection of the bittersweet -- and occasionally the downright bitter. The clue is in the title after all: it's about 'broken' relationships, not healthy ones or those that ended amicably.
To be fair, would you even go to such a museum unless you were guaranteed an (un)healthy share of darkness as well as the light?
So, for example, a Champagne cork donated by a woman in London is from the bottle of plonk she drank after breaking up with a fiancé who cheated on her. In the note accompanying the display, this lady said she wanted to celebrate "a lucky escape".
There's also a Mercedes-Benz sign with no explanatory note; a drug-testing kit from a relapsed addict lover and a teddy bear, donated by a Croatian woman who said it was given to her by a man who told her he loved her just to get her into bed -- and then dumped her.
Meanwhile, in the permanent exhibition in Croatia, you glimpse a half-smashed garden gnome -- known as 'The Divorce Day Gnome' -- that was thrown in a rage at the car of a departing husband.
Then there's the axe that was used by a jilted German man to hack up the possessions of the straying girlfriend, who had just moved in with him. He found out about her two-timing -- with another woman, no less -- while she was on a two-week holiday.
"Every day, I axed one piece of her furniture," the man writes. "I kept the remains there, as an expression of my inner condition. The more her room filled with chopped furniture acquiring the look of my soul, the better I felt.
"Two weeks after she left, she came back for the furniture. It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood. She took that trash and left my apartment for good. The axe was promoted to a therapy instrument."
Raw, numb pain can be detected in other objects, such as a mobile phone that was sent to a woman from its owner just so she would stop calling him.
There's the sand from a beach of a too-brief holiday romance in Greece; the MP3 player of a former boyfriend -- the female donor continued to listen to the music on it for a year after the break-up.
The contributions are not all negative or depressing. For every furious remnant, there's something funny, nostalgic or romantic
The objects are testament to the myriad ways that people react to and remember particular break-ups.
Consider the magnifying glass that was given to a guy in Manila by an ex as she was breaking up with him. In the note, he says he never understood what that meant (I could hazard one cruel guess).
I particularly liked the pair of orange underpants donated by another unidentified person. "For him too small -- but I didn't mind at all," reads the note attached.
Similarly, a pair of pink furry handcuffs is left to speak for itself. Other objects are more heartfelt. An under-knee prosthesis is a symbol of a failed romance between a war invalid and the nurse who tended to him in hospital.
One German woman donated her wedding dress. "I wore this dress at our wedding ceremony in August 1994," she explains. "We were both aged 20. Our goal was a happy home with many children, but Mother Nature didn't deliver, plus I wanted to wait until I was finished university.
"It was very important to him to be a young father. Slowly we grew apart, and we separated. I returned to Berlin, and eventually started a new family."
It's not just lovers who are commemorated in the museum. After all, your family has arguably the greatest power to break your heart whether you realise it -- and whether they mean to -- or not.
An Irish woman donated a spoon to the museum on behalf of herself and her late brother's wife.
Another person donated the last clothes peg from her mother's peg bag. "My mother was staying with us while waiting for her new house to become available. On the fourth night she had a massive heart attack, out of the blue, and died instantly. When everything was settled, I found her peg bag in the kitchen."
One of the most powerful exhibits in the permanent collection is a pair of figurines donated by one woman fleeing an abusive marriage.
"My heart was broken in England in the 1980s when I could no longer accept my husband's vicious temper," she explains. "The eldest child got most of the brunt of it, and I simply had to take responsibility for their safety.
"We left unknown to him, and travelled to Ireland by boat on a winter night. We came in only the clothes we were standing up in. A couple of years later, when we had settled into our new life, I purchased these two little figurines to remember these sweet little girls. Today they are in their 30s."
Somewhat inevitably, given the strong emotions evoked during break-ups, some of the items also stray into the downright bizarre.
What to make of a yellow plastic vial, which apparently contains the tears the male owner shed after a four-year relationship with a "wonderful but sneaky" woman broke down? "I was going to send them to her as a sign of my deep pain," he writes. "But I sent them to the museum instead."
Probably a good call, dude.
As you leave the exhibition, there's a white-board outside where people are invited to write their responses to what they've seen, or simply to pass on their own wisdom.
Some messages are pithy, such as "When one door closes ... another slams shut on your fingers", and, "No sausage was ever as battered as my heart was by you".
These nuggets even offered an unlikely ray of hope amid the heartbreak. "Lucy thought this would be a good first date," someone wrote. "She was right."
Nice to see that someone paid heed to another tip left on the message board: "Keep kissing the frogs ... just in case."