Guest Post, Jane Bernstein: The Museum Course

Jane BernsteinFor the students in my museum course, the “collection” period has ended at last. They no longer have to go to farmers’ markets, coffee shops, and church group meetings. They don’t have to pitch the museum to friends or siblings or plaster posters everywhere, like the one I saw on the inside of a bathroom stall, that said, “Have you ever had your heart broken? Do you own an object that won’t let you forget?” They don’t have to venture into distant neighborhoods, far from the university to have breakfast with steelworkers or visit shelters for homeless men and women. The collection period is over! Now the editorial and design teams have to finish putting together the museum book, and the public relations and opening night committees have to turn their attention to the dozens of necessary tasks that must be completed by December 2nd, when the show opens in a large gallery in the Mine Factory, where long ago equipment for mine safety was manufactured.

I am teaching this course because in May 2015, I took a side trip to Zagreb. While making some tentative plans for my two days in the city, I found a description in Lonely Planet for the Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb’s “quirkiest museum.” I’d always liked museums with small, focused collections – cowboy boots, Bonnie and Clyde memorabilia, subways – so on my first morning in the city, I walked from my hotel to Upper Town, found the handsome white building where the museum is housed, and entered this museum, “dedicated to failed relationships.”

Even now that a year and a half has passed, I remember much of what I saw and felt as I walked through the cool white galleries where the stories and objects are exhibited. A child’s pedal car from Prague. Red stilettos from Paris. A blurry black and white photo sent from Bloomington, Indiana, of the Florida lake where the contributor “first saw a penis in the sunshine.” Some of the stories, like that one, were humorous. Others wistful. Or heartbreaking: the flowered house dress worn by a woman in Poland who’d killed herself, the handwritten story from her daughter.

I walked slowly through each space, studied the objects, read the stories. Heartache is not monolithic. We know this as writers. But I was struck by the range of these contributions – in tone, length and style, and in the emotion evoked. When I reached the end, I walked through the rooms a second time. I watched the other visitors – the young couple pressed against each other; the man with his eyes glued to his phone, as if determined not to see what was on display. I listened. Because I was alone, I felt no pressure to leave and could totally immerse myself in this exhibit.

No agenda, no ticking clock, no companion to distract me.

While I was lingering, I began to think: I want to take this home. Bring it to Pittsburgh. Share it with other people. I stopped at the front desk and asked the young woman sitting there if this ever went on tour.

She explained that the museum had partnered with hosts in other cities – at that point there had been 34 shows, in Manila, Cape Town, San Francisco, Taipei, in Kilkenny, Ireland, Saint Louis, Istanbul…

Later, I read press clippings from some of these shows. In each, there was someone who just happened to be passing through Zagreb, wandered into the museum, expecting something quirky and forgettable, and was surprised by the resonance of the show as a whole. Each time someone thought: I want to take this home.

I expected this desire would cool. Isn’t that what usually happens? You have a brilliant idea one night and in the morning, it’s not so great after all. Or it’s still sort of great, but completely unfeasible. I’m a writer; I teach creative writing. How could I “take this show home” when I lacked the experience to know what that entailed?

Six months passed, and I was still determined to somehow make it happen. But it wasn’t until late September that I began to think that maybe I could design a course and have students curate the exhibit. My department head was enthusiastic, and though no other exhibit had been put together by students, the founders of the museum, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, were open to the idea, and so “The Museum of Broken Relationships” was listed as an English elective for fall 2016, an elective for creative writing students, designed for “students who love stories and have the curiosity and motivation to travel throughout Pittsburgh to find them.”

A month later, I found out that the university’s Entertainment Technology Center had a “location based entertainment” track for Masters students interested in museum installations. This group of six graduate students would design the show.

I always knew that along with collecting stories and objects, I wanted my undergraduates to put together a book that included their essays and journal entries, and all the stories and images they collected, so when the show was over, they would have a record of what they had done and what people donated. I envisioned the essays as the chance for them to reflect on the city they had been exploring, the building where the exhibit would be held, their experience as curators. They were also charged with keeping a daily journal to document in an immediate way the ups and downs of the process, since I knew that otherwise, the emotional terrain of an experience tends to get flattened. Though only some students followed through on the journal, the ones that did left a record of feeling scared, worried they would fail. Awkward. To some, the course felt “chaotic” because there was no recipe for what they needed to do to find stories and objects.

I hadn’t wanted to read their journals, but it became clear if there were no submission deadlines, they wouldn’t write. So I collected their journal entries after each class session, read about their responses to being in specific places, as well as entries about their own lives, full of heartbreak, intrigue, depression, jealousy, the same ingredients in the stories they would collect. But different, each one.

Their journals make it clear that sending mass emails isn’t an effective way to get people to tell stories about their broken relationships. In this period, when they were timid, no donations came in. So they began to go out.

Dani, a dramaturg, was the first. She arranged to talk to a group of ESL students at the library, knowing that newcomers to this country have lives full of fractured relationships. Then Sydney, after an unsuccessful evening, saw a sign for a meeting of people interested in Magic: The Gathering. She took a flight of steps down into a basement area, and made her pitch to a group of six, got the first story, short and unaffected, and the first donation — a geode. After that, the others came in, until by the end of the month, about 90 people contributed.

Only a few will be in the Pittsburgh show, along with objects and stories from the permanent collection in Zagreb, but everyone’s story and object will be part of “Confessions from Pittsburgh,” Pittsburgh’s Museum of Broken Relationships book.

Will the show get a buzz? I hope so, though I can’t really say. I can’t predict if opening night will be a success, or if visitors will keep coming to the show for the month of December. I can’t say how the book will turn out, though my students are talented and hardworking. To most people, the book is what marks this as a creative writing course. But to me, the most meaningful task was the collection period, when these students left campus and went to unfamiliar neighborhoods. They spent time with people they would not have otherwise known. They collected their stories. They learned to listen.