The tragedy and comedy of broken relationships are chronicled in Zagreb, writes David Whitley.
HANGING from the wall is a slightly grubby pair of white garter belts. "I never put them on," explains the neighbouring sign, dictated by their previous owner. "The relationship might have lasted longer if I had."
Nearby is a packet of Russian condoms - "Didn't use them with her or anyone else" - and a can of what is billed to be "love incense". A two-word explanation for its presence is sufficient: "Doesn't work."
The new Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, is packed with humour - but also with heart, hatred and hurt. The brilliantly simple idea - offering a chance to get over emotional collapse through creation and donating something symbolic of the relationship to the collection - came to Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic in 2005. Their own relationship had hit the rocks and they collected up a few of their own personal mementoes. They decided to exhibit them, plus those gathered from their friendship networks, and it took off. The exhibition was a huge hit and started to tour the world, collecting more artefacts on the way.
"It was never meant to be a project but it started to have a life of its own," Drazen says. "Different themes emerged in different places - war in Bosnia and people moving abroad as guest workers from the Philippines - but the emotions were universal."
A collection of about 700 objects - all otherwise unremarkable but each having a huge significance to an ill-fated couple - has been accumulated. Catharsis and letting go appear to be the main motivations for those who have added to the haul. Olinka says: "When you give your object and your story to the museum, it is no longer your story - it is the world's."
The permanent museum opened in October last year; it long since stopped being about Olinka and Drazen's own broken relationship and they eventually hope to be able to to set one up on every continent.
The objects are often mundane: a map of Frankfurt, a Swedish bank note, a small suitcase, a car wing mirror. But the museum isn't really about the objects - it's about the stories behind them. Each object is the key to a hugely personal tale that has no significance to anyone outside the immediately concerned but strikes a poignant chord with anyone who has ever loved.
The range of break-up emotions is covered: anger, pain, relief, remorse, grief. Some of the donations are fairly obvious - wedding dresses, cuddly toys and items of clothing - but each story seems to strike perfectly at a different part of the emotional pincushion.
It becomes a semi-voyeuristic journey through the lives of complete strangers, each identified only by their home town and the start and end dates of their relationship. They're silhouettes but unmistakably real characters.
An Irishwoman has donated the blue chiffon top worn on the day her husband took her out to lunch to tell her he was leaving; a German lady has given the axe she used to chop up her partner's furniture; one chap has left the shaving kit he kept at his loved one's house before she had a family with someone else. "I hope she doesn't love me any more," his explanation reads. "And I hope she doesn't know that she was the only person I ever loved."
Some tales are shocking. A pair of figurines represent the two children a woman took with her as she fled a violent husband, while a Serbian woman has chipped in with a pair of large sculpted breasts. Her husband used to make her wear them during sex, a way to get him turned on as their relationship reached crisis point.
The biggest heartbreakers creep up unexpectedly in the most unlikely exhibits.
A flashing dog collar light belonged to a couple who parted after 13 years together. He allowed her to keep the dog as he thought she'd need the company but she later killed herself in a hotel room.
And then you get torn to shreds by something as simple as a key-ring bottle opener from Slovenia. It is dated January 23 1988 to June 30 1998 and the small plaque to the side reads: "You talked to me of love, gave me small gifts every day; this is just one of them. The key to the heart. You turned my head, you just didn't want to sleep with me. I realised how much you loved me only after you died of AIDS."
Austrian Airlines flies from Sydney to Zagreb, travelling via Bangkok and Vienna. aua.com.
See + do
The Museum of Broken Relationships is at 2 Cirilometodska. Admission 20 kuna ($3.80), open 9am-9pm. +385 1485 1021, new.brokenships.com.
The four-star Palace Hotel at 10 Trg J.J. Strossmayera has rooms for about €150 a night. +385 1489 9600, www.palace.hr.
Three other things to do in Zagreb
1 St Mark's Church Zagreb's Upper Town, on top of Kaptol hill, is a treasure chest of churches, cathedrals, palaces and stone gates. The highlight is St Mark's Church in St Mark's Square, however. It's an architectural hodgepodge but the distinctive tiled roof provides the postcard image.
2 Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb is being touted as a new hot spot and part of that's due to the new Museum of Contemporary Art (17 Av. Dubrovnik, +385 1 60 52 700, msu.hr). The collection has an admirable focus on young Croatian artists and is getting almost universal rave reviews.
3 Jarun Lake If you're wanting a healthy dose of activity, hop on tram 5 or 17 from the centre and head south for a few stops. Jarun Lake is where the joggers and rollerbladers charge round, boats pootle lazily on the water and a beer in the sun on the cafe terrace tastes perfect.