After splitting from her husband, Lila Higgins gave back or trashed a lot of his things, but she couldn’t get rid of the caterpillar. He had given it to her when she was an undergraduate student studying entomology; it had a small, zippered compartment that hid butterfly wings and a note from him: “I love you.” When he finally told her he didn’t any longer, in a car parked on the edge of Los Angeles’ Silver Lake reservoir five years ago, Higgins burned the note and stuffed the doll in a drawer in her closet. “It didn’t feel right to just give it to Goodwill,” she says.
Earlier this year, she found it a proper home in the Museum of Broken Relationships, an art institution that collects material reminders of lost connections among people. The museum’s new brick-and-mortar location, which opened on L.A.’s Hollywood Walk of Fame in June, is a sleek gallery with recessed lighting, mid-century modern-esque glass cases, and a gift shop that sells $45 canvas bags. And yet, unlike many other highbrow institutions in cosmopolitan cities like L.A., the museum accepts nearly all the donations that it receives, from people of all classes and backgrounds, and offers them a distinguished afterlife as exhibits presented like works of art. Here, personally meaningful items from the mundane (a toothpaste tube, a road sign) to the precious (a mural of photographs, a wedding ring) are exhibited like Van Goghs and Manets.
The donations process is more of a parting ceremony than a bequest of valuable goods. Hopefuls fill out a brief form online, write the object’s caption themselves, and send the objects to the museum, either by mail or by handing them off to a curator in person. The process is ultimately intended to be therapeutic. “You’re going through a certain set of prescribed motions … that hundreds of other people have gone through too,” says Alexis Hyde, director of the L.A. museum. “I think that is a ritual, and that can provide solace.”
The museum’s curators put a characteristically inclusive spin on the design of the displays. Hyde and her co-curator select objects based on the diversity of location, age, race, sexuality, and relationship type they will bring to the exhibits, and arrange them to fit into what Hyde calls the museum’s “emotional rollercoaster” design — the museum pivots from humorous to weepy to triumphant tones across its six rooms. “This is a very sophisticated piece of conceptual art, no doubt,” Hyde says. “But it’s also the most democratic piece of art I’ve ever encountered.”
On an otherwise quiet Sunday at the museum in early June, an Australian man is chuckling with two middle school-aged kids over a pair of fake breasts from Serbia that the donor says her ex-boyfriend required her to wear during sex. “Because of those fake, sculpted breasts, I left him for good,” the caption reads. Around the corner, in a corridor in which objects recall loved ones who died, fell ill, or were abusive, a couple is ranking objects by their level of misery. They settle on a lottery ticket from Spain — a remnant of a momentous betrayal in a 60-year friendship. “This kills me,” the man tells his companion.
In the final room, one couple is entwined with one another, pretzel-like, as they view a Frisbee — an unwelcome Valentine’s Day present, the caption indicates, from a donor’s ex-boyfriend. In front of a worn-looking teddy bear, which once played a couple’s special song when its paw was pressed, another woman brushes the back of her hand across her companion’s back.
Not long after she posted her intention to donate to the museum on Facebook, Higgins got a call from her ex-husband. He told her he was engaged to be married; in return, she told him that she had donated to the museum. She asked if she could read him her caption: “I burned the note as a catharsis. I buried the ashes in my special spot in Griffith Park.”
“We were both in tears on the phone. It was just this really beautiful moment,” she says. “It felt good to be able to share that with him. It felt like a moving-on point.”