Whilst I was at art college we were given an unexpected assignment: the brief required us to design a museum. There was only one stipulation: it had to be a museum of something; we couldn’t have a museum without a theme, even if the theme was something like absence or non-existence. We also had to choose at least a dozen artefacts for inclusion in our museum and we had to write a short essay explaining the choices that we had made.
After a while I decided to have a museum of ideas. I chose twenty ideas for display – ideas such as ‘democracy’, ‘surveillance’, ‘desire’ and ‘paradise’. I spent ages trying to design two-dimensional ways of representing the ideas – but in the end I was quite pleased with the results.
Just before I handed in my completed assignment I discovered a book that was devoted to the most recent contemporary works of art that are now displayed in museums around the world. Amongst its inclusions was a pictorial reference to the ‘Museum of Despair’ that had been created by a radical artist who had rented a shop in Edinburgh in order to show his exhibits. I was very struck by the idea of a Museum of Despair. I could easily imagine how an artist might feel despair – either with the world as it is or with the lack of appreciation that they might experience. I wished that I had thought of such a museum.
Still, it was too late for me to re-think my project so I handed it in. Oddly enough, when my tutorial group met Mrs A. (the tutor who set the assignment), we were told that whilst she had read our submissions she would neither mark nor comment upon them because she wasn’t being paid properly. So I never did find out what she thought of my museum of ideas.
Since those art-college days I have sometimes recalled the Museum project and once or twice I have glanced again at my sketchbooks and the designs that I originally produced. And then, on a cold December day in Paris I discovered what seemed like a close relative of the Museum of Despair. It was the forthcoming ‘Museum of Broken Hearts’. The advance publicity told us that ‘for the first time in France’, the Museum of Broken Hearts (a museum that originated in Zagreb) was about to exhibit all those things that permanently reminded people of the time when their heart had been broken. It might, I imagine, have been sub-titled the Museum of Grief.
I noticed that the museum had invited people to send in the objects or actual things (perhaps they might even be words spoken – or melodies – or the sight of the sun setting) that were forever and unalterably associated with the time that their heart had been broken. These objects would be included in the exhibition.
But then, as I walked away from the building in which the Museum of Broken Hearts would be installed I noticed something that would have warranted inclusion amongst the objects on display: it was a brass plaque fixed to a wall, adjacent to which someone had placed a bouquet of flowers. There was an inscription on the plaque: it commemorated a young French resistance fighter who, in 1943, had died for his country and for freedom.
The streets of Paris are full of these quiet reminders of lives lost and hearts broken.
Footnote: The above photograph ‘Paris – Ophelia and the broken hearts‘ shows the Pont des Arts in Paris. Thousands of little metal padlocks have been fixed to the wire meshing along the sides of the bridge. Upon the padlocks are the names of couples. But among all the hopeful Romeo and Juliets are some Ophelias.