This week in news that completely makes sense: Los Angeles, home of the high-profile Hollywood divorce, will soon get its very own “breakup museum.”
The Museum of Broken Relationships, opening this Saturday in Hollywood Heights, will be a permanent structure housing more than three-hundred pieces of ephemera culled from the ruins of failed relationships, ranging from old tennis shoes to torn love letters to fuzzy handcuffs. Each object will be accompanied by a note detailing the nature of its origin and emotional resonance.
This is the second Museum of Broken Relationships, the first opening in 2011 in Zagreb, Croatia to much fanfare. Originally conceived of by artists and ex-lovers Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic, since opening, it has become a de facto church for the broken hearted, the lonely, and the straight-up “just curious.”
In addition to six exhibition rooms, the LA museum will also contain a private confessional space for writing and leaving anonymous notes, and a gift shop filled with doomed-relationship-themed items. The museum’s curators hope that the space will offer catharsis through shared experience, and so far, the contributions have been pouring in from the public.
And indeed, for some, that’s what makes this museum less entertainment and more therapy.
In what has become a classic episode of the radio show and podcast This American Life titled “Break-Up,” lovelorn guest Lauren Waterman tells host Ira Glass, “Breaking up with someone is literally the most common thing. Like, everyone you know broke up with everyone they ever dated, until maybe the person they're with right now, if they're with someone right now. But when it happens to you, it feels so specific.”
And she's right—which is why reminding ourselves that others have gone through the same agony can actually feel good. Sometimes you just want to immerse yourself in the sad—to let the feelings of pain and regret wash over you, until you feel whole again. And so, beyond the sheer voyeurism (and perhaps schadenfreude) that the Museum of Broken Relationships offers, it also promises visitors a potentially transformative experience.
"The museum is an opportunity for visitors from around the world to experience the emotions and memories embodied in objects and told through narratives contributed by others," says John. B Quinn, a high-powered trial attorney with a soft side, and the man responsible for bringing Vistica and Grubisic’s concept to America. "From this we learn how different people and their relationships are, but also, when it comes to break ups, how much we share.”
For some, seeing these artifacts might remind them of their own broken hearts. Others may be searching for clues as to the broader nature of love and loss. Curious to learn more about the unique pleasure that can come from immersing ourselves in other people’s failed romances, I asked a few psychologists for their expert insights.
“I think people like to look for signs of why things may have gone wrong so that they know what to look for, and can avoid a similar fate,” says Dr. Gary Lewandowski, chair of the department of psychology at Monmouth University in New Jersey.
Dr. Monica O’Neal, a psychologist, relationship specialist, and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, went deeper. We’re drawn to the concept of the museum, she posits, because it connects us to our “collective unconscious”—it makes us feel a part of something bigger. “It’s tapped into the emotional needs and struggles we all share,” she told me by phone. Like a sad song or a provocative piece of art, a boyfriend’s old shirt, a birthday card—can also tap into the “core humanity of our deeper psychic needs.”
“Attachment, intimacy and love—those are our very first emotional experiences,” O’Neal explains. Sometimes these emotions can’t be accessed in words, which is why music, psychical acts, and yes, even objects become a proxy.
O’Neal cites projects like Post Secret, the popular website and book series that curates strangers’ discarded notes, or even Marina Abromovich’s The Artist is Present, in which the Serbian performance artist challenged visitors at NYC’s MoMA to an 17-day staring contest-turned-meditative practice, as examples of “mass emotional empathy” and a transference that goes beyond the limits of personal experiences.
“Those [types of projects] become so popular because we all share different pains and insecurities. When you see somebody else speak about it, it actually helps us feel a little safer or more normal.” She believes that exhibits where people express vulnerability or heartbreak “take away the shame and create a bit more comfort in terms of how we might be dealing with our own loss and break up.”
Ultimately, grieving a relationship is much like the process of bereavement. “Loss really hits at the core of the most basic emotional experience we can have, and when it comes to [breakups], grief is always very complicated. Grief isn’t just as simple as ‘I’m sad.’ With grief there’s anger, there’s fear, there’s relief, and all of those emotions are really, really confusing.” She believes that as diligently as people may try to avoid these emotions, they often carry with them the unfortunate feelings of shame and failure that accompany the breakdown of a relationship. However, seeing an exhibit like this “brings us a little bit of comfort that we’re not struggling with those particular emotions alone.”
And as for those of you are hoarding former lovers’ relics in your own homes—well, there may be psychological benefits to donating the objects, too. “It’s a good sign when people who’ve broken up stop referring to themselves and their ex-partner as ‘we,’” says Grace Larson, a psychologist at Northwestern University who has studied breakups extensively. “So, letting go of objects that represent the ‘you’ from a past relationship could be a healthy way of making that transition.”
Donations aside, if you aren’t able to visit LA’s museum in person and find yourself in need of catharsis, consider purusing its website—or turning up the volume on your favorite torch song and playing it on repeat until you can’t take Drake’s dulcet Canadian falsetto for one more second.
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.