In 2003, after four years of dating, a Croatian couple named Dražen Grubišić and Olinka Vištica did what most couples do eventually: They broke up.
It was a pretty garden-variety split, by both accounts. “The relationship just disintegrated,” recalls Dražen, who has a dark goatee and speaks English with a light accent. “From what I remember — or what I let myself remember — it was civil. No screaming and shouting.” Still, extricating themselves from each other’s lives (and their shared apartment) was full of mucky, circuitous conversations and tears. “Even after it was over, we spent about two years talking, just torturing ourselves,” says Olinka, a pretty brunette with pixielike features.
Olinka and Dražen spoke to me recently via Skype from their hotel in Finland, where they were coordinating the latest installation of their breakup-fueled brainchild, the Museum of Broken Relationships, whose permanent location in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, is now the country’s most visited institution. The concept is simple: People anonymously donate a symbolic object from a past love, along with a story about its significance, and Olinka and Dražen curate them. In June, the museum’s second permanent location will open on Hollywood Boulevard in L.A., backed by prominent lawyer John B. Quinn, who discovered the original museum in Zagreb a few years ago while on vacation with his family.
A decade into their shared project, Olinka and Dražen remain exes. “Working together was not so easy in the beginning,” admits Olinka. “We know each other so well, and how to hurt each other. But now we see each other almost every day.” When asked if it was difficult to find new partners, being so intertwined in each other’s lives, they both start talking simultaneously, pause together, and then burst out laughing. “It’s really not,” says Olinka, who has a boyfriend. “No,” confirms Dražen, who is now married with a young daughter. “We had a past, but now it’s definitely over. There’s nothing for anybody to be jealous about.” The only person who takes issue with their relationship, says Olinka, is her mother: “I show her pictures from our trips, and she will frown, seeing Dražen in all the photos.”
Olinka and Dražen insist that the idea behind the museum, which originated in 2006, came from both of them. Olinka was the one who wrote it down, and Dražen was the one who suggested they try it for a local art fair. They both run in the same creative circle — she owns a production company, and he paints (they began dating, initially, after she asked him to design the set for a dance performance she was producing) — and when they spread the word to their friends, things came pouring in. “We thought it would be like, teddy bears and love letters,” says Dražen. Instead, they got hundreds of items, including wedding rings, a prosthetic leg (from a Bosnian war veteran who fell in love with the social worker who helped him procure it), a man’s cell phone (it was the only way he could get his ex to stop calling him), and chicken bones encased in formalin (“I think it came from a biologist or something,” says Dražen. “It was pretty disgusting.”). They also included their own object — a windup toy bunny that, during happier times, they’d photographed in various locations whenever they were apart, Up in the Air style. The project was an instant hit, and they received invitations to do pop-ups in other cities, where they gathered more things — in Berlin, a woman sent an axe she’d used to chop up her ex’s furniture, and a man gave them a tiny box full of tears. More recently, a woman in Korea donated an SUV that was given to her by her late husband.
As Dražen puts it, the process of putting the exhibitions together “is not very romantic.” The institution hosting the show will crowd-source items, usually over a period of several months, and catalogue them in Google documents that Dražen and Olinka can review. “It’s not a scientific approach,” says Dražen. “A lot depends on the gallery or museum that invites us, and how they solicit participation from the local population.” Submissions always reflect the local culture — in Finland, for example, they’ve received several half-knitted woolen socks, originally intended for feet that walked away, so to speak. They generally cap each exhibit at 100 artifacts. “We’ve found that’s the maximum people can take,” says Olinka. Afterward, contents are shipped back to Zagreb to join the museum’s permanent collection, a sprawling archive kept at a temperature-controlled storage facility.
For the past several months, Alexis Hyde, the director of the museum’s soon-to-open L.A. outpost, has been assembling its contents — sent by mail via online application — in the downtown offices of John Quinn’s white-shoe law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. “It’s a very serious place, full of serious people, and we’re walking around with dildos and a four-foot-tall teddy bear,” she says. As of late April, they’d received 235 objects, ranging from gross (a vial of pubic hair, a half-finished bottle of lube) to sad (a dress that a teenage boy bought for his girlfriend days before his suicide) to very L.A. (a pair of breast implants, removed by a woman after she broke up with the man who encouraged her to get them). Olinka and Dražen are helping, but mostly as advisers — fairy godparents, really — to Hyde and assistant director Amanda Vanderberg, who will oversee the second museum full-time. The inaugural show will also include a few popular staples from the permanent collection in Zagreb.
A nearly 6,000-square-foot affair on the tourist-choked thoroughfare of Hollywood Boulevard, the new museum was designed by Ryan Brown (who also worked in Quinn’s nearby sushi restaurant, Q) to be tranquil and light-filled, almost spalike, with warm woods and curvilinear surfaces — a departure from nearby attractions like Madame Tussauds, to say the least. “It’s such a crazy neighborhood, and this space has to feel safe and intimate,” says Alexis. Items will be displayed on white plinths (to keep them from looking like random bits of junk — a genuine concern, in some cases) and grouped together by “feeling” — hope, loss, and so forth. “It’s going to be a real roller-coaster of emotion,” explains Amanda.
After Finland, Dražen and Olinka are off to Seoul for another show, and then will join Alexis and Amanda in L.A. Does building their lives around heartbreak and its weird, messy detritus ever get depressing? “I like to think of it as more like a museum of love, just upside down,” says Dražen. “You’re just looking at love from a particular angle.” Adds Olinka, “We’ve probably heard more stories about relationships than any therapist in the world, but they’re still just as mysterious.”
The Museum of Broken Relationships opens in L.A. on June 4.