Inside the Collection

Broken dreams and dioramas

Dead bird in a cage
Photo by Jean-Francois Lanzarone, Powerhouse Museum

A couple of media stories set me thinking about the image of museums. One (which you may well have come across) concerned a museum and its touring exhibition which have gained an extraordinary amount of press. I refer to the Museum of Broken Relationships, founded by a Zagreb couple out of the ruins of their own relationship.

Artist Drazen Grubisic and film producer Olinka Vistica began collecting six years ago when dividing their own possessions. Books and furniture could be divvied up but what about a small wind-up white rabbit, for some reason a token of their former relationship?

The white rabbit became the Museum’s first artefact. It’s been joined by an array of artefacts encompassing the banal (mainly) to the profound and alarming. The collection includes an axe used to smash up an ex-lover’s flat, a teddy with “I love you” on its chest accompanied by a note reading, “I love you. WHAT A LIE! DAMN LIES, DAMN LIES!’ a set of brain scans, a tin of ‘Love incense’ (the label reads: ‘Doesn’t work’), and a red candy g-string.

With this unlikely collection the MOBR has progressed to a permanent and well-visited gallery in Zagreb plus a hugely successful touring show currently packing them in at Covent Garden, London.

Donations and accompanying labels are invited; most of the artefacts need the latter to work. My favourite label (accompanying a frisbee) reads

Darling, should you ever get the ridiculous idea to walk into a cultural institution like a museum for the first time in your life, you’ll remember me.

On one level the MOBR is completely trivial and opportunistic; on another its connection to some of our deepest feelings obviously gives it a strong appeal.

What does its success tell us about museums and their publics? Mainly that a lot of people would like a chance to be Tracey Emin. Or Glenn Close in boiled bunny mode. Or, less cynically, that a combination of voyeurism, interactivity and savvy curatorship is a sure fire winner. And that cultural/moral improvement is not essential to successful exhibitions.

By the way if you have artefacts to donate the MOBR can be contacted here.

Two bird on a branch
Photography by Jean-Francois Lanzarone, Powerhouse Museum

The other muse-inducing source was a story in the New Yorker about the restoration of the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. I don’t much like stuffed animals or skeletons so I haven’t visited this museum or many others of its genre, but dioramas are another matter. For a start they have an interesting history – for example some of the first European views of Sydney were created for dioramas, the travel docos of their day.

More significantly, the Night at the Museum movie franchise (the first edition thereof was set at the American Museum of Natural History) makes it clear that despite decades of change, the diorama and its artefacts remain a powerful part of the museum idea to a lot of people. Sure, if you have to watch Ben Stiller in a museum, it’s obviously going to work better if there are heaps of fake animals and people ready to escape their dioramas after hours.

I’m still not sure if the result is merely further evidence of the cultural irrelevance of contemporary US cinema (the mainstream part, anyway) – why didn’t they put Stiller in a museum which would have him chased by more interesting and various things? The trouble with this argument is that NATM 2 apparently (I haven’t seen it) centres on a battle to save the old dummies from the Smithsonian, where such things aren’t appropriately valued. To inhabitants of the post-Pompidou museum world, it’s a message worth thinking about, even if you don’t like dioramas.

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