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At the Museum of Broken Relationships, the personal is public

Many summers ago, over a pint of Guinness in a grimy West London pub, the Irish novelist Edna O'Brien told me how she came up with the iconic title for her 1965 novella: August Is A Wicked Month. "It's got nothing to do with the weather," she said with a grin, "but the fact that August is the month when all the psychotherapists go on holiday."

Seems fitting then, that I should find myself, nearly a decade later, wandering through the chilly August drizzle of London's Covent Garden on my way to a new exhibit that's become the city's late summer salve. If ever there was an exhibition to attend in lieu of a good head-shrinking, this is surely it.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, which opened last week, is a travelling exhibit of seemingly mundane objects that tell the astonishingly poignant, funny and bitter stories of past loves lost.

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The concept originated in Eastern Europe (from where else could such a whimsically tortured, grimly romantic idea possibly spring?), the bastard brainchild of Zagreb-based artists and collaborators Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic.

When the couple broke up after a long-term romantic relationship five years ago, they found themselves at loose ends, unsure of what to do with all the physical and emotional detritus that lingered from their time together as a couple. While their friends and colleagues treated their breakup as an unmentionable taboo, the former couple decided to go public with their angst. They mounted a show of totemic objects that held private meaning for them as a way of marking the end of the romance.

To their astonishment, members of the public responded by donating their own objects (and written stories) in turn – hundreds of them in fact. (The archive in Zagreb now holds over 900 pieces.)

What started as a personal art exhibit became a public outpouring. As they explain in the exhibit notes, "Whatever the motivation for donated personal belongings – be it sheer exhibitionism, therapeutic relief, or simple curiosity – people embraced the idea of exhibiting their love legacy as a sort of ritual, a solemn ceremony. Our societies oblige us with our marriages, funerals, and even graduation farewells, but deny us any formal recognition of the demise of a relationship."

After the success of Zagreb, the show went on the road, and has since toured well over 20 cities, including Singapore, Cape Town, Berlin, Sarajevo, Manila, San Francisco and even Bloomington, Indiana (they are plotting to come to Canada, when the right opportunity presents).

Laura Kriefman, creative producer for the Tristan Bates Theatre, the exhibit's London home, ushers me into a dimly lit gallery. The place is stacked to the rafters with arty hipster chicks, some of whom look to be getting a bit weepy under their asymmetrical haircuts. "In the first week we had more people than I expected for the entire exhibit!" she informs me brightly. Lining the space are an assortment of random curios from around the world – a garden gnome, a water bottle filled with beach pebbles, a prosthetic foot – all which have been placed reverently on hanging bases, their accompanying stories laid alongside them on simple notepaper.

"Here's my favourite," she says, and leads me over to a collection of four homemade CDs in plastic cases. The accompanying note explains they are the last remnants of an illicit affair that took place between a 62-year-old woman and a man almost 30 years her junior. She donated them because she didn't want her children to find out after her death and cast judgment on what, for her, was a singularly beautiful – albeit long since extinguished – passion. "I haven't listened to them, but apparently it's a bunch of 80s pop songs," says Kriefman. "What gets me is that she's publicly honouring her love, and still keeping it private at the same time."

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I ask Kriefman if she's donated an object of her own and she gives a solemn, wide-eyed nod. So what was it, I ask? "Oh," she hoots, "I'll never tell you that."

I wander the gallery and find myself oddly moved. There is a grand piano gifted to a young musician by her rich older lover. On top of it is a photo album, a record of a 1997 wedding of a healthy middle-aged woman and a physically-disabled man. (It ended amicably a few years later; they still talk everyday.) A pair of broken Prada reading glasses, snapped during sex. A tacky stuffed bear. A cell phone SIM card. A sleeping mask from Istanbul. A battered half empty can of spray paint from Kilkenny, Ireland sits beside a note that reads, "I was risking everything painting those words on a big blank wall near your parents' house. Now they're long since painted over and I don't ever know if you ever saw them."

My mind wanders to my own private museum of broken relationships – the one I keep packed away in the parents' basement of my heart. I settle on something I'd like to donate: A watch. And quite a nice one too. I wonder what my shrink would say about it, but then remember I won't find out until September. August, you really are a wicked month.

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More

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