Brexit parallels abound as Museum of Broken Relationships opens in York

Phillip Newton, Communities Engagement Researcher at York Castle Museum with the rare 18th Century jigsaw map of Europe.
Phillip Newton, Communities Engagement Researcher at York Castle Museum with the rare 18th Century jigsaw map of Europe.
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What happens to all those seemingly trivial possessions when a relationship ends? A new exhibition in York seeks them out. Yvette Huddleston reports.

As far as timing is concerned, the opening of York Castle Museum’s latest exhibition couldn’t be more appropriate.

Today sees the launch of Museum of Broken Relationships, a collection of stories and symbolic objects relating to the ways in which love breaks down. As the UK continues its messy and very public break-up with the European Union, to describe it as a show that resonates would be an understatement.

The collection, which will be resident at the Castle Museum for a year, comes from an original creative art project conceived and set up in 2006 in Zagreb, Croatia by artist Dražen Grubišić and film producer Olinka Vištica. After the end of their four-year relationship, they began to think about all the possessions and tokens of affection that people bring with them into a love affair and to consider what happens to all these seemingly trifling but often meaningful objects once we fall out of love.

Since 2010 Grubišić and Vištica have been collecting such pieces – and their associated stories – from all over the world. As well as running the bricks and mortar museum in Croatia, they have organised satellite exhibitions internationally, such as this collaboration with York Museums Trust. “It is really exciting to be bringing it to the Castle Museum,” says curator Philip Newton, who first saw the collection in Zagreb in 2015. “As social history curators we became obsessed with it, and a year down the line we got in touch with them to see if we could host a smaller scale touring show.”

However, after further conversations, Newton and the rest of the creative team began to think on a larger scale. “We are working with them to bring their pieces over but we are also looking at our own collection to see what we can add and working with local communities to bring in more objects.”

Items from the York collection include an 18th century jigsaw map of Europe, so-called ‘vinegar’ Valentine’s cards sent to people as jokes, an Easter egg from the Terry’s factory that was returned to the chocolate manufacturer in 1902 after the child it was intended for very sadly died, and a bank note from 2015 upon which someone has scrawled ‘Vote UKIP’.

“As the show starts around the time that Britain is supposed to leave the EU, there will be a thread on Brexit,” says Newton. “The show is installed in a space next to our First World War exhibition, so we will be looking at relationships between people but also between countries and changing borders.”

The beauty of the show is that most of the objects in it are completely anonymous aside from a date, a place and the story attached to it, so it is a real exercise in empathy. “That is what is so powerful about it,” says Newton. “The point is that you put yourself in that person’s shoes and really connect with them. That’s what we are hoping for with the Brexit strand – we are trying to build those bridges as much as we can.”

Grubišić and Vištica understand that in order for people to move on from a break-up certain things have to be discarded, but sometimes it can be hard to do. “You can give away your pain and the museum will look after it,” says Newton. “It’s cathartic. They offer a space where people can reach closure, safe in the knowlege that the object they have donated is still being cherished.”

At York Castle Museum, March 22 - March 22, 2020.