Her story started with, “I fell in love with a junkie.”
He must have felt the same heart-thumping emotion, because he ripped the handset off a pay phone for her. The busted receiver rested inside a neatly labeled display case, with the thin wire shaped like a crooked smile resting against the broken body. It was a touching gift, if a tad violent.
The couple were strangers to me, but I knew exactly how their romance would play out. No one stays together at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Los Angeles. Hearts cleave, tears spill and lives splinter. And yet the personal mementos from those unions remain intact — a forever reminder, for one half, of what the other half did.
So dump them, suggests the Los Angeles museum, or in more proper institution-speak, donate them. Contribute your bittersweet artifacts to the arts and humanities of Southern California, and to the broader culture of voyeuristic sharing. Plus, you might find closure for the nominal cost of shipping.
“Nothing protects you from a broken heart,” said Alexis Hyde, the museum’s director. “These objects honor the time you spent together and the emotions you felt. They connect you to the human race.”
The two-story repository, which opened in June, spawned from the original Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia. During a European vacation, John B. Quinn, a lawyer and art collector, was moved by the concept and decided to open a satellite branch in his hometown, the City of Broken Dreams. To build the collection, the museum posted a call-out for items in February. It requested relics associated with all types of loss, not just the Taylor Swiftian kind.
“It’s not automatically romantic,” Hyde said. “It’s anything — friends, cities, former self.”
For instance, a middle-aged man submitted a Peter Pan plush toy that represented his bon voyage to boyhood. An Irish donor relinquished a religious figurine that signified a renunciation of Christianity. And a daughter volunteered a painting of a cowboy and a dog that she had received from her father as a wedding gift. Knife cuts shredded the canvas. She was clearly not happy with the present, or his parenting skills.
Contributors must abide by only one rule: None of the individuals involved in the story can be identified through the object. That means such personal effects as belly lint, dreadlocks and silicone breast implants are acceptable; photos of faces or letters with names are not.
“Anonymity makes people more forthcoming,” Hyde said.
Since winter, the museum has amassed about 400 items, with 10 to 20 packages arriving each week. (Applicants fill out an online form. If their entry is accepted, they then mail or drop off the item.) The staff limits the number of objects on display to about 115, to avoid redundancy. The items will rotate every six months, with some favorites staying (the wedding dress in a Mason jar, the paper flowers, the wine key) and others leaving (TBD before December).
“The way we make and break relationships is changing all the time,” Hyde said, “and we want to reflect that.”
The museum’s location on flashy Hollywood Boulevard echoes that sentiment. Love, like fame, evolves. And both can tank.
Walk of Fame stars bedazzle the sidewalk outside the entrance. I navigated my way through a constellation of Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby and Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters to reach the front door. Inside, the minimalist space has the hushed and sacred atmosphere of a Van Cleef & Arpels boutique or an Apple store. Each item is treated like a treasure. They are nestled in display cases and fastened to the white walls like Dada artworks. A few, such as the dinosaur piñata, squat on the floor or rest on pedestals.
Diarylike descriptions accompany each relic. The staff barely touches the prose; they will fix the author’s spelling, grammar and punctuation or redact a name, but they will not correct facts. For example, the instrument in “Illustrated Mandolin,” which features a drawing of two penguins on the back, is actually a ukulele. I wasn’t the first person to tell the front desk about the mislabeling, nor will I be the last person to hear the no-recollection-is-wrong policy.
“The stories are very unique to someone,” Hyde said. “They honor a relationship, even if it ended in flames.”
During an afternoon visit in July, I wandered through the gallery alongside clingy couples and rapt singles. I approached the exhibit with the eye of a social anthropologist and the spirit of a nosy neighbor. I studied each item and read each passage. Out of context, the objects appeared common: a coffee pot, an empty tube of Tom’s toothpaste, a dog brush. But in the museum, they transformed into totems inscribed with universal truths.
Diamond ring: “S(he) be(lie)ve(d).”
Moroccan cedar pen case: “I unclasped the wooden case and set the neon yellow pen inside. It didn’t fit.”
Implants: “What a beautiful send off for these two lumps of silicone that caused me so much pain.”
Salad spinner: “Getting rid of this won’t change anything, but it will at least free up some space.”
Though each mini-memoir is singular, I noticed several shared traits among the heartbroken. Many were artists, and a few own dogs and have children. References to mental illness emerged several times. And a lot of people buy or make thoughtful gifts that never reach their intended recipient.
In one example, a woman from Warsaw explained that she had planned to write her boyfriend a romantic sentiment every day for a year. For his 27th birthday, she was going to fill a jar with all 365 messages. The title of the piece — “103 Love Notes” — suggests that he never received it.
If inspired, visitors can participate in the group catharsis inside a confessional booth. A desk in a private corner provides an electric candle and a journal.
“Have fun with your Tinder,” read one passage.
“The Jonas Brothers broke my heart, but I got you,” said another.
“I’m scared you’ll leave me for Pokemon one day,” a guest shared.
Perhaps in a future exhibit, we will see a smashed iPhone with a Pokémon Go app still displayed on the screen.
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Museum of Broken Relationships
6751 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles
Admission: $18. Validated parking: $2.