Brokenships: The materiality of memory

When recounting past relationships, sometimes an object is worth a thousand words.

The museum of broken relationships in prague

A pink shirt. A Max Brenner drink. A sweater, a music box, and an anthropology of poems.

Miscellaneous objects, from miscellaneous persons. Dwelling on dusty bookshelves, in the backs of drawers and one’s memories, these items linger on, way past their expiry date.

What unites them, besides the fact that they seem insignificant to most, is that they were all poignantly central to a faded, gone by relationship.

Beyond the standard remnants that need to be swept aside after a relationship is over (socks, hair ties, plans which never came to fruition), items with a history and a story are a lot harder to discard. We all know that it’ll be easier for us to move on if these objects aren’t in the space we live and breathe in, and yet, most of us don’t throw them away. We file them away, out of sight, until we stumble upon them one day and somehow, though months or even years have elapsed, they still have this ability to halt us in our tracks.

In choosing to keep these precious nothings, there is a thin line between sentimentality and self-sabotage that can be hard to tread.

There is a Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia. Going inside, one experiences a plethora of emotions we’ve all experienced.  They’re messy, absurd and beautiful. The idea of the museum is simple – personal mementos from relationships are displayed with a narrative from the donor, filled with snarky remarks or wistful lamentations. But behind these quirky objects lurks a complexity of emotions, capturing the most intense moments of one’s relationship.

This museum has held temporary exhibitions all around the world, with two permanent museums in Los Angeles and Zagreb. While it was never originally intended to be a permanent museum, the owners found an unexpectedly large audience in the heartbroken, the curious and the emotional. And across the displays, a general sense of catharsis exudes; by donating personally significant items to a public domain, the donors undergo the final stage of loss – acceptance, as they say goodbyes to objects they have lugged around for too long.

In many ways, we have our own museum of broken relationships on campus.

Most of its installations are not physical, but dwell in the stories quietly hidden under the expressionless faces of students who trudge in and out of class each day. And perhaps, many of these stories are best told through a physical object.

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A short sleeve button down, worn on the third date and the first kiss, became representative of more than just the memory of the date. “That night I fell asleep wearing the shirt. I was lulled to sleep by the smell of her and was so over the moon. It was such a lesbian couple thing – swapping shirts and sharing things…Being able to share clothes is so intimate for me, something I never considered I’d be able to do with a partner”.

The idea of a shared experience is unique to same-sex relationships. Yet, the tendency to attribute meanings onto otherwise meaningless physical objects is something more universal. Projecting feelings onto things perhaps makes us feel closer to the person, like they are with us, even when they are gone.

That shirt, however, also came to symbolise the differences between the couple. “She was very butch… I, on the other hand have always been feminine, straight passing… While we could share the shirt it was never my fashion. It was me dipping into her world.”

Indeed, whilst you can hold a physical object that reminds you of the other in your hands, it is important to realise that you can never fully ‘have’ another person in the sum of their spirituality. But for some, the projection of meaning onto objects seems altogether melodramatic.

“It felt like a very constructed attempt at a movie moment.” someone tells me, referring to a music box, given during a potential breaking point in a relationship.

The music box played a song that her ex-boyfriend’s dad used to sing when he was a child. It was a source of comfort for him, and he gave it to her as a memento to take through life and comfort her whenever she was upset. While that was what he said, she felt differently. “I literally have no emotion attached to it.”

Perhaps you can’t force a piece of yourself into an object and into someone else’s life; meaning has to come from the receiver themselves. You can offer parts of yourself to the other, but whether you’re allowed to stay, as a wistful bygone memory or otherwise, is entirely out of your control.

And of course, there are the mementos from first dates. A sweater, stolen off one’s boyfriend on the first date during ice-skating, now sits at the bottom of a chest of drawers, never to be worn again. A Max Brenner drink, ordered on the first date and subsequently every time they walked past Max Brenner, has never been ordered since the relationship ended.

“I can’t order it anymore without feeling sad and guilty.”

There is a whimsical magic around items from the first date. These objects capture a snapshot of two people unaware of the emotional journey they are about to undergo, while also representing a sort of naivety and untainted beauty that becomes even more poignant when the relationship ends.

Finally, these physical manifestations of emotions can sometimes be one-sided, created after emerging from unrequited romances. An anthology of poems which came into fruition, even though hopes of ever-lasting love did not.

It was a vague, ‘thing’ that started at 12, with years of back and forth, until he became her first love when she was not his. Only after years of midnight poetry and self-healing was she finally able to attain full closure at 22.

There is a lot of lingering power in one’s first love. A concoction of whimsical naivety and nervous energy, the experience of letting someone into your life so intimately for the first time can really change a person’s perspective. And when it’s all over, the process of writing and creating for years afterwards can give some sense of control over the otherwise uncontainable flood of emotions. With every word written, a small part heals, even if it feels only temporary.

Loss has no linear timeline. Although condensed into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, the stages can realistically repeat, overlap or feel never-ending. And although we most likely experience the same basic human emotions after a breakup, how we cope varies from person to person.

“I think time is the only thing that can give you closure. You can talk to friends and everything but it is always time to think and be alone that does it.”

But isn’t time just another word for forgetting? Closure can be romanticised as simply the act of letting go, without recognising the necessary role of confrontation. Humans have terrible memories, always clouded by emotions and weathered by time.

Perhaps it’s sometimes better to forget. When confrontation becomes too painful, or resentment continually resurfaces,  forgetting maybe is the next best option.

And for others, donating objects to the public domain for others to ruminate upon seems to be the final step in achieving that ever-elusive closure. Whatever that means.