Say what you like about the romance of travel. The fact is that going on holiday with your sweetheart can quite easily lead to a parting of the ways rather than the deeply meaningful melding of spirits that you initially intended. The trauma of mid-journey meltdown is just one of the themes dealt with by the Museum of Broken Relationships, an idiosyncratic and enlightening journey through human emotions that has become Zagreb’s most compelling attraction since opening to the public in October 2010.

The museum is the brainchild of artist Dražen Grubišić and festival producer Olinka Vištica, themselves a former couple caught unprepared by the aftermath of a love that failed to last. By collecting mementoes and letters that sum up the experience of break-up, the duo have assembled a poignant and unique series of insights into the mysteries of the human heart.

The project began life as an art installation put together for the Croatian Artists’ Union’s annual salon in 2006, when Vištica and Grubišić asked their friends to supply objects that symbolised relationships gone wrong. The fact that the collection was housed in a cargo container parked in the yard outside the salon’s main exhibition space only added to the sense of intrigue.

And it would have remained a one-off conceptual art gesture had it not been for an overwhelming reaction from the public. ‘It provoked an immediate and totally unexpected interest,’ Olinka Vištica explains. ‘We were suddenly receiving a flood of phone calls and emails from people asking how they could donate objects to the collection.’ News reports conveyed the impression that the installation was a real museum rather than a temporary exhibit, a misunderstanding that was only amplified once the story reached the international media. ‘Japanese television was so determined to film a game show inside the museum that we had to recreate it from scratch in a rented gallery space and pretend that it was a permanent institution,’ Vištica recalls.

Invitations from foreign galleries soon followed, and the ‘museum’ became a travelling exhibition, visiting places as diverse as Belgrade (2008), Singapore (2009) and Istanbul (2010). At each location members of the public contributed their own mementoes, swelling the museum’s collection further.

The decision to give this collection a permanent home wasn’t initially the most obvious option. ‘Dražen initially thought that a virtual collection accessed via the internet would be more appropriate,’ says Vištica. ‘It came as something of a surprise to discover that it was the physical display itself that people actually wanted to see.’

Now sheltering under the barrel-vaulted ceilings of an 18th-century palace in Zagreb’s Upper Town, the neatly arranged collection is divided into rooms each devoted to an emotional theme; ‘Desire and Lust’, ‘Rage and Fury’, and ‘Grief’ being among the most self-explanatory.

‘We wanted a display that reflected different emotions, whether funny, sad or even disturbing,’ Vištica continues. ‘As a museum of the human subconscious it is not so much the number of objects on display that’s important, it’s more to do with the stories they tell and the emotions they tap.’

Much more than just a collection of teddy bears, heart-shaped pillows and sexy underwear, the museum is mind-bogglingly diverse in its exploration of love’s messy aftermath. An electric iron donated by a jilted Norwegian is accompanied by the laconic comment: ‘This iron was used to iron my wedding suit. Now it’s the only thing left’.  One of the museum’s most oft-reproduced visual trademarks is a prosthetic leg presented by a veteran of the 1991-1995 war, commemorating a short-lived love affair with a hospital nurse. ‘Clearly the material was stronger,’ explains the accompanying caption, ‘as the leg survived, but our relationship didn’t’.

Many exhibits are captioned with the kind of surreal narratives that frequently flow from fraught emotional states. The autobiographical notes accompanying Ex Axe (from Berlin), or Rear-View Mirror (from Zagreb), are riveting short
stories that deserve to be read in their entirety.

Exhibits from different countries reveal different approaches to universal experiences. As Vištica reflects, ‘the basic emotions you go through in the aftermath of a break-up are everywhere the same, but the objects we receive seem to say something about the local culture. When we were in Singapore we received a lot of items associated with a gadget-obsessed society, such as digital cameras, MP3 players, that kind of thing. In the Philippines many of the donations came from failed long-distance relationships, so we knew that we were dealing with a country that is marked by migration, with many people spending long periods of time abroad either studying or working’.

Vištica has also noted differences in the kind of objects donated by people of different generations. ‘Letters and postcards are very significant to older people, whereas most people nowadays are dependent on text messages and emails. Hardly anyone writes love letters anymore, and maybe this museum is one place where the traditional love letter should be displayed and celebrated.’

The idea of a broken relationship is by no means limited to failed romance. One Irish visitor to the museum’s exhibition in Kilkenny donated a small wardrobe-shaped shrine, symbolising his break with religion. Elsewhere, a magazine bearing the front-cover visage of Barack Obama suggests rupture with a politician who promised much, but never quite delivered.

The items on display only represent about ten per cent of the museum’s holdings. ‘The rest of the donations are either in my attic or packed inside several large suitcases in Dražen’s studio”, Vištica says. The collection will be periodically refreshed with donations from the museum’s touring exhibition, which continues to rove the world’s cities.

The museum is one of the few visitor attractions in Zagreb’s Upper Town that is constantly busy, a sign that people identify strongly with the process of comfort and catharsis that the display was initially intended to address. While Vištica feels uncomfortable with her role as some kind of agony aunt in museum-curator clothes, she is convinced that the exhibition can provide succour to those whose personal lives have gone dramatically pear-shaped. ‘These days you are expected to be in a relationship. The majority of advertising is directed at couples. If you are single in this society, you are treated as someone to be pitied. But what’s so bad about being single? It’s one of the few periods in your life when you have time to think for yourself. It is frequently very rewarding to be alone. Everybody tries to be smart about relationships, as if they’re on the brink of discovering the right recipe for happiness and their next love affair is going to be perfect. This museum shows things from a different perspective and demonstrates that being single is not so tragic.’

Vištica and Grubišić’s own contribution to the museum is a photograph of a toy rabbit in a desert in the Middle East, accompanied by a caption reading, ‘The bunny was supposed to travel the world but never got further than Iran’. As you stroll back down the hill towards central Zagreb, maybe you should start planning what do with those significant holiday snaps should things take an unexpected turn for the worse.