Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb

I didn’t meet that many people who had been to Zagreb, Croatia before I visited, but everyone who had been suggested I go to one place: The Museum of Broken Relationships. Well, with a name like that, of course I had to check it out.

Museum of Broken Relationships

Museum of Broken Relationships

The museum started as a traveling show, for which the founders asked people to donate something that symbolized their ended relationship as a means of coping with that end. The founders, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, see submitting to the museum almost as a ritual, like a marriage or funeral, that can formally recognize the end of something once vital to one’s life.

One of the first displays I encountered

One of the first displays I encountered

Great imagery

Great imagery

The rooms were labeled with themes, like “Rage and Anger,” although on the whole, I didn’t find the themes that useful a division. The stories are interesting enough on their own, and there’s too much overlap in the end of a relationship among rage and heartbreak and loss to divide it all up into rooms. Maybe the only theme I would’ve taken care to separate items into would be “Death,” because it’s one thing to read about how two lovers broke up, and quite another to read about the tragic circumstances of a loved one’s death. I’d separate those out, to reduce the emotional whiplash.

Different kinds of relationships

Different kinds of relationships

The museum displays about 15% of its collection; they accept any donation (except things that are racially, religiously, sexually, or ethnically offensive), and they only have so much room. I imagine the turnover is pretty good, so that you could visit every year and see almost a whole new exhibit every time. They don’t turn donations away, as they really seem to want to be a physical place for people to locate their pain from a broken relationship.

Different goals for donating

Different goals for donating

They also don’t change the written story submission at all; they encourage people to submit in their native language, and they employ translators to do their best in changing it into English (the language of the museum). They accept multiple objects, tiny objects, large objects. They let the donor decide what’s being displayed and how it’s being talked about, and it seems to me that in doing so, they’re radically addressing what it means to be a museum at all, and what it means to curate one.

There were a lot of stuffed animals

There were a lot of stuffed animals

zagreb croatia museum

It was as fascinating and emotional as I’d been promised it would be, so I’ll pass on what other travelers told me: if you’re going to Zagreb, go to the Museum of Broken Relationships.

Cuenca Houses of Worship in Ruins and in Splendor

Like every other place in the conquered Inca empire, Cuenca shows the the effects of the Spanish: the Inca buildings were torn down and the materials used to build the Europeans’ civic buildings and churches. However, in Cuenca, the foundation stones of the Inca buildings are well-preserved enough that we can get a good sense of the size and function of the complex.

The foundation stones of the grand Inca building that used to be here

The foundation stones of the grand Inca building that used to be here

It was a palace, comprised of soldiers’ barracks, quarters for virgins dedicated to the sun god, a temple, farming terraces, and other structures necessary to support a center of Inca activity. The ruins were excavated by a team led by Max Uhle, the German archaeologist, from 1919 to 1923. The ruins nowadays include a reconstruction of gardens, down the hill from the main structures, an aviary, and, naturally, a snack stand.

Replanted gardens

Replanted gardens

Reconstructed section

Reconstructed section

As with every other major Inca structure, the ruins of Pumapungo (“gate of the puma”) are situated precisely on the compass rose, aligned with mountains and other natural formations of spiritual significance. From atop the hill, looking out over the river curving around the base of the ruins, it’s easy to see why this might be a strategic as well as inspirational spot to set up a major hub in your expanding empire.

These were the first Inca ruins I saw--the first of several

These were the first Inca ruins I saw–the first of several

The ruins are behind the Banco Central and the Museo Pumpapungo, so after touring the ruins and feeling the first hint of rain on my jacket, I went inside the museum. I bypassed the display on money and went to the side room display on the Incas. It was an odd mix of meticulously made costumes and empty display cases, and I only got a muddled sense of the people who lived and died here 600 years ago.

Photos weren't allowed in the museum, so I just snuck a couple, like this one, showing the Incas worshiping.

Photos weren’t allowed in the museum, so I just snuck a couple, like this one, showing the Incas worshiping

Upstairs, a much better display awaited me–an entire floor devoted to the different ethnic groups of Ecuador, from the jungle-dwelling people in the Oriente, to the various highlands groups in the Andes, to the people living along the coast. Musical instruments, masks used for celebrations, clothing worn to indicate status, and everyday work tools were the most frequently displayed items.

Masks for all occasions

Masks for all occasions

Finally, one small, dark room at the end of the hall showed the famous shrunken heads of the Shuar people of the Amazon jungle. (Head shrinking was outlawed a few decades ago, so now they can only shrink the heads of animals, like sloths.) This is the only exhibit in the museum to include English translations alongside the Spanish placards, and the display includes a lot of information on the Shuar people in general, before getting to the head-shrinking. A few shrunken heads were on display, and they were eerie and grotesque, as you might expect.

But my favorite part of the exhibit was the careful way the text explained why the Shuar did this–to make sure the soul of the deceased, contained in the head, could not return–and that it wasn’t always done to enemies, but sometimes to Shuar people who had killed. Killing was so taboo that the killer was himself put to death and his head shrunk so his tainted spirit couldn’t return and inhabit another person. That’s a very different thing from the bloodthirsty savage we likely all imagined, right?

The final placard of the exhibit made this plea: “The ‘Shuar’ are a people who merit respect, and even if many of their customs have changed for diverse reasons, they maintain themselves as a group proud of their past and of their present, a true example of the diverse ethnic communities of Ecuador. Because being ‘civilized’ does not imply casting aside the historic and cultural baggage from which our being originates.” That’s a major statement for a group to make in Ecuador, where indigenous groups were until very recently legally discriminated against, and are still struggling against the racism of city-dwelling Ecuadorians. I was impressed to see the statement made here.

Llama city grazing, naturally

Llama city grazing, naturally

I was in Cuenca during the last two days of Carnaval, and the city was a ghost town, which meant I spent a lot of my time taking photos of street art and wandering empty streets, dodging small children with foam cans. It also meant that all the churches were closed, so I didn’t really get to go inside any, but here are a few shots of the exteriors.

eh

I’m not sure which this one was

Sacred Heart on a church door

Sacred Heart on a church door

i dunno

San Sebastian

The New Cathedral was a boring brown brick building, but the doors and the domes were great. Apparently, the interior has a lot going for it. I’ll have to check it out during a non-holiday sometime.

Splendid doors of the New Cathedral

Splendid doors of the New Cathedral

Domes of the New Cathedral

Domes of the New Cathedral

The Old Cathedral

The Old Cathedral

I don't remember what church this was, just that I was struck by the sunset making it glow

La Merced

Amsterdam: The Anne Frank House

When I first read The Diary of Anne Frank, I was 12 or 13 years old, about the same age as Anne was when she started the diary. I had a completely adolescent reaction to the first part of the story; I was envious of how popular she was at school with all her friends, when I was pretty friendless at mine. By the end of the book, I liked her so much I wished we could hang out and be friends. That’s how instantly relatable Anne is — not a blandly “universal” character, but one with her own personality, dreams, and worries.

She had a great eye for detail, and had plenty of time to turn it to the hiding place she lived in with her family and others for two years. The result was a description so fine that one could sketch out an exact replica of the Annex (the hiding place), including all the furniture and odds and ends. When I was younger, I was into floorplans and the ways homes were laid out. I would sketch the grand houses of my imaginary characters and make up stories of them moving around those spaces. So I probably focused on that aspect of the diaries more than most kids, and tried to imagine just how small the Annex was and how all the beds and tables and sinks fit together.

a reworked version of the original building that housed the Frank family from 1942 to 1944

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (photo by me)

This March, I visited a friend in The Netherlands and spent a few days touristing in Amsterdam. I stood in a long line outside the Anne Frank House on a rainy day, watching canal boats glide by and listening to the Westerkerk chime the hour. Once inside, I bought my ticket and selected an English pamphlet from the many language options. It’s a self-guided tour, and there’s a constant stream of people, which is a little unsettling in the building that once housed just a small office and a back room of people for whom every visitor meant possible discovery and arrest. I followed the crowd, reading the small placards placed along the way and peering at the photographs hung on the wall. I had forgotten that the Annex was attached to Otto Frank’s office, not to a residence. Much of the material at the front of the house focused on how the office functioned before they went into hiding, and how the “helpers” smuggled food into the Annex.

Otto Frank had requested that any museum made of the house not include the furniture; he said the emptiness of the place would symbolize how everything they had was taken from them. So I didn’t get to see all the pieces fit together as I’d imagined when I was penciling improbable architectural structures on my sketch pad. How that furniture would fit in there anyway, I don’t know, because these rooms were tiny. If you go to http://www.annefrank.org/ the museum has set up a neat 360-degree view of each room with the furniture intact, so you can get an idea of how everything was set up. Even with that guide, when I was standing in the rooms and looking around me, it seemed impossible. How eight people could fit into this small space (and a teenaged Anne sharing a room with a middle-aged man because there was no room in her family’s room, at that), I still don’t see, except that needs must. They had to fit, so they fit. They had to put their lives on hold for fear their lives would end, so they put their lives on hold.

It was such a dark place, too. They had blackout curtains drawn all the way down or almost all the way down in each room in the Annex, so you could get a real idea of how each day looked to the Franks, the van Pelses, and Mr. Pfeffer. It looked dark, and small, and dull. Anne talks about how bored she is several times in the diary, and it’s no wonder. She’s bright, young, and full of energy, but she has to be practically silent for two whole years, confined to a tiny space with her parents, sister, sometime boyfriend, and three other adults. Distractions are few and frivolity almost impossible. Long before her life was taken from her, her adolescence was stolen away, or at least forced into unnaturally cramped conditions.

At one point in the diary, Anne writes, “I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage. ‘Let me out, where there’s fresh air and laughter!’ a voice within me cries.” In most other diaries of girls her age, this is usually teenage angst and hyperbole. The heartbreaking thing about Anne, and what visiting the museum made more real and terrible to me, is that while she felt the usual swirl of teenage emotions and conflicting desires, she did so within a fatally dangerous world that made her imprisonment all too real. And yet she never stopped writing.

bronze statue of Anne Frank near her house

Anne Frank memorial statue (photo by me)