World of Conceptual Museums
Enter the zany world of conceptual museums – featuring failed love affairs, doomed inventions and terrible art
IN A QUIET CORNER OF A MUSEUM stands a white plinth on which sits a 30-centimetre-long, multicoloured caterpillar made of felt. Some of its legs are missing and lie forlornly next to it. Close to it is a card on which are printed the following words: “I had this big, truly big love, a long-distance relationship, Sarajevo– Zagreb. It lasted for 20 months. Of course, we dreamt of a life together and with that in mind I bought this huge caterpillar. Every time we would see each other, we would tear off one leg.
“When we ran out of legs to tear, that would be the time to start a life together. But naturally, as is often the case with great loves, the relationship broke and so the caterpillar did not become a complete invalid after all.”
The caterpillar and its accompanying sad tale is one of just over a hundred exhibits in the Museum of Broken Relationships, a time capsule of ill-fated affairs contained in a few small rooms in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city.
Each object on display tells a story. Sometimes it’s very short: a toaster is accompanied by the words, “When I moved out, and across the country, I took the toaster. That’ll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?”
Other objects have much longer tales to tell, of jinxed holiday romances, first loves, office affairs. The objects themselves are generally quite mundane (a rolling pin, a wedding dress), but the stories attached to them provoke laughter, sadness and sometimes even shock.
For instance, an axe is accompanied by the story of how a German woman’s lover left her for another woman and went on holiday with her. So the jilted partner bought an axe and destroyed a piece of her ex-girlfriend’s furniture each day she was away. “The more her room filled with chopped furniture acquiring the look of my soul, the better I felt,” she wrote.
IN A SMALL GLASS CASE JUST INSIDE the entrance to the museum is one object of particular significance. It’s a fluffy white toy rabbit accompanied by the words: “The bunny was supposed to travel the world but never got further than Iran.”
It once belonged to the museum’s founders, artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišic.´ The idea was that if either of them travelled alone, they would take the bunny in place of their partner. They broke up after four years and the bunny took on another role – as the founding exhibit in their idea for a totally novel kind of museum.
“I think we were one of those couples that just run out of fuel,” Vištica recalls. “We were still young and not ready to settle down.” As their relationship broke down, they would have “interminable conversations late at night about what to do with the residues of a past love affair.”
One “crazy” idea was to set up a museum containing all their sentimental bric-a-brac. They forgot all about it until 2006, two years after their split, when Grubišic´ was considering ideas for an art show in Zagreb and he remembered that crazy idea. He gave Vištica a call.
“The idea was to try to create this space where we could poetically store all the emotional heritage of
broken relationships,” says Vištica. “We thought the best thing to represent it was by using a shared object and the story attached to it, as we ourselves were surrounded by objects that each had their own story.”
With just ten days to go before the show’s opening, the pair desperately emailed friends and relations to gather exhibits, which they installed in an old shipping container outside the gallery. The Museum of Broken Relationships was born.
“It was a very popular show and caught the attention of the international media, which was a total shock for us,” says Vištica. “We had Reuters calling, asking about the first museum of broken relationships opening in
Zagreb, and we’d say, ‘No, it’s just a shipping container with 40 objects in the yard of an art gallery and it’s not going to be there much longer!’ It turned into a snowball. We just let it roll and it caught a lot of snow.”
After the exhibition ended, the museum began touring the world – as it has continued to do to this day, visiting more than 40 locations, including major cities such as New York, London and Berlin.
IN 2009, THE PAIR BORROWED money in order to fund a permanent home for their collection in Zagreb. It was Croatia’s first private museum; the government having decided the idea was too “weird” to fund themselves.
The museum has become one of the most popular attractions in Zagreb.
The pair, who remain good friends, now have a staff of 20 and recently oversaw the founding of a second museum in Los Angeles. As for their own relationships, Grubišic´ is now married with a young daughter, while Vištica will only say cryptically that she has “a couple of intrigues”.
They receive new objects and stories two or three times a week. In a storage depot sit more than 2500 objects, all waiting for their time in the limelight. Both Vištica and Grubiši´c see this as an evolving artistic endeavour.
And what have they learned about love and relationships from all these stories? “It’s all just as perplexing as it was,” says Vištica. “I’m not smarter – if it’s possible to be smart in something like this. If anything, I’ve learned that relationships are what count when you’re alive and they’re something that makes us really human. No matter how different our cultures, or however short the period of interaction is, it’s something precious. And we should celebrate it.”
“I think it’s taught me that truth is stranger than any fiction,” adds Grubiši´c with a grin.
ONE PERSON WHO WAS “BLOWN away” by a visit to the museum is psychologist and innovation expert Samuel West. He went there in 2016 and it’s safe to say it changed his life. For some time he’d been trying to find an interesting way of
communicating his research into business failures, and suddenly a light bulb lit up above his head.
“I was fascinated by how they could communicate an abstract concept with concrete items and short stories,” he says. “It was there and then I decided I was starting a Museum of Failure. It was a eureka moment.”
West is an ebullient Californian who married a Swede and ended up living in Helsingborg, Sweden. Fired with enthusiasm by his trip to Zagreb, he successfully applied for funding from the Swedish Government to set up his own museum, which opened in Helsingborg last year for a limited period.
It turned out to be a big hit with the general public. “No attraction in Sweden has got such positive press in such a short amount of time,” says West.
As a result of its popularity, it has now reopened in the city’s Dunker Culture House. On show will be more than 70 objects that satisfy West’s key criteria for inclusion: “It has to be an innovation, it has to be a failure, and it has to be somewhat interesting.”
This means the inclusion of such high- profile flops as New Coke, but also of the less well known unsuccessful brand extensions such as Harley- Davidson perfume and Colgate frozen dinners, entitled Colgate Kitchen Entrees. And there are unwanted gadgets such as the Rejuvenique Electric Facial Mask. This ‘rejuvenating’ facial mask looks like something from a horror film and gives mild electric shocks to the user’s face. It wasn’t a hit.
One of West’s favourite failures is Frito-Lay’s Wow range of potato crisps made with olestra, a kilojoule-free fat substitute that can cause diarrhoea. “You won’t get fat, but you might be sitting on the toilet for a long time!” he hoots.
Joking aside, the museum does have a serious point. “If people are afraid of failing and get penalised for it, that doesn’t encourage creativity,” says West. “It’s important to know that even huge brands like Coca-Cola sometimes risk getting it wrong.”
Fittingly, West experienced a failure of his own while setting up the museum. “One of the first things I did was to buy the Internet domain of museumoffailure.com,” he says. “I was very happy that it was still available. Then a couple of days later I got the receipt and to my surprise it said, ‘Congratulations, you have bought musumoffailure.com.’ I missed out the ‘e’. I really screwed up!”
Dražen Grubiši´c and Olinka Vištica got the idea for the Museum of Broken Relationships from their own break-up