Everyday Heartbreak at The Museum of Broken Relationships

By Erica Martin, July 3, 2018

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The Museum of Broken Relationships has a surprisingly bright and sunny atmosphere for an exhibit devoted to heartbreak. This was likely a purposeful decision to balance out the kaleidoscope of pain and trauma it houses.

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Founded in Croatia by two artists coping with the end of their own four-year relationship, this collection of everyday objects rendered significant by pain and loss has traveled the world and set up two permanent locations in Zagreb and LA before arriving in Shanghai as a part of a collaboration with prominent Chinese record label Modern Sky.

Anyone can donate an item, and the Columbia Circle exhibit has a clear and much appreciated focus on China, with artifacts from Shanghai, Beijing, and several cities throughout the south and west of the country.

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On a wide spectrum from the quirky and cheeky to the devastating, artifacts include stuffed animals, plane and train tickets, a chunk of concrete with initials in it, and a wedding dress crammed into a glass jar. The descriptions also vary from full-length personal essays rife with pain to pithy one-liners; the caption for a can of ‘love incense’ from Indiana dated 1994, for example, simply says, “Doesn’t work.”

What resonates with any given visitor will largely remain up to personal experience – moving through the maze of artifacts, we’d find one submission a bit melodramatic, only to get gut-punched by another.

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Items that directly connect to how one partner hurt the other or ended the relationship, rather than just symbolizing the relationship as a whole, resonated most with us, along with anything handwritten, from dozens of uneaten lollipops with love notes stuck to them to a lovelorn guy’s list of 10 reasons his partner shouldn’t leave him, written after he already knew it was over.

The Museum has a reputation for being a means of catharsis for spurned lovers, in part because its most publicized item is the ‘ex-axe,’ a donation from a woman in Berlin who used it to chop up her ex’s furniture after she left her for another woman (this is not actually on display at the Shanghai gallery, though it’s part of the promo material).

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But the exhibit is actually much more varied, housing a rich selection of every kind of breakup and unrequited longing, with several of the most poignant submissions from people struggling to move on from a partner who has died.

It’s also not limited to just romantic heartbreak – a particularly moving artifact is the fertility hormones of an Amsterdam woman who’d been struggling to get pregnant and wanted to move on from the “strong but imaginary” relationship with her unborn child. 

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After exploring and potentially leaving a note about their own loss in the ‘confessional’ section, visitors can exit the gallery to browse an outdoor gift shop, which peddles a mix of Modern Sky merch and clever Museum souvenirs, like a bad memories eraser and a ‘turn over a new leaf’ bookmark.

The gift shop bleeds into the palatial open air courtyard housing Columbia Circle’s branch of Pirata and Brew Bear with its glimmering faux-Grecian pool in the center. Surrounded by people chatting, brunching and snapping selfies, it’s a fitting return to the real world and its decided lack of authentic raw emotion.


Until Aug 1, RMB90 on weekdays, RMB120 on weekends. Columbia Circle, see event listing. (brokenships.com)

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