Quake-hit Zagreb museums enter the digital age

Quake-hit Zagreb museums enter the digital age
A sign outside the Croatian History Museum in Zagreb. / Clare Nuttall
By Clare Nuttall in Zagreb January 29, 2022

Croatia is only gradually rebuilding after the two massive earthquakes that shook the centre of the country in 2020, and it will take years for some of its large and historically significant museums to reopen. In the meantime, institutions like the Croatian History Museum and Museum of Arts and Crafts are investing in their online offerings to reach a wider audience. 

Nearly two years on from the March 22, 2020 earthquake almost directly under the Croatian capital, in central Zagreb cranes puncture the skyline and damaged buildings are swathed in dust sheets and scaffolding, including one of the spires of the city’s cathedral. 

Tourists returned to Croatia in large numbers in the summer of 2021, and in Zagreb, the smaller and quirkier museums are operating almost as normal. When I visited, the Museum of Chocolate was teeming with school parties hyped up on sugar from the chocolate sampling fountains and gift shop confectionary. At the Museum of Illusions, people were being turned away and asked to come back when it was less crowded; a spokesperson said that the only change at present is that it has had to limit numbers to comply with coronavirus (COVID-19) distancing rules. 

It’s a very different story at the bigger, longer established museums, many of them housed in historic palaces that are visitor attractions in themselves. Some were in need of restoration even before the quakes hit in March and December 2020, and officials interviewed by bne IntelliNews said it will take up to 10 years and possibly more to rebuild and fully reopen, as the museums’ managements struggle with financial, logistical and bureaucratic difficulties. 

Closed for reconstruction 

A survey by the Museum Documentation Center (MDC) found that visitors to museums increased in July and August thanks to the favourable epidemiological situation and good tourist season, with the number of visitors at 70% of the level in pre-pandemic 2019. This compares favourably with museums in many other international tourist destinations. However, the MDC warned, the majority of Zagreb museums are currently preparing their collections for evacuation ahead of the start of reconstruction work. 

“So far not a single museum in Croatia has permanently closed as a result of the pandemic but at the same time almost 60% of Zagreb museums are still closed because they were damaged by earthquakes. At least 15 of Zagreb, mainly national, museums will remain closed for years because they've got [no] money from the EU Solidarity Fund to deal with the consequences of the earthquake that struck Zagreb on March 22, 2020,” Maja Kocijan of the MDC told bne IntelliNews by email. 

The Croatian History Museum dates back to 1846, when it was initially part of the National Museum in Zagreb. Its main location is a Baroque-era palace in Matoševa Street, Zagreb. The palace was damaged in the initial quake then suffered further damage in the second in December, which had its epicentre around 100 km from Zagreb near the central town of Sisak. 

Asked how long it will take to repair the damage, curator Mislav Barić says: “that’s the million dollar question”. According to him, the latest estimation is 10 years for the palace the museum is currently housed in. Barić explains that the building is important for Croatia’s cultural heritage, which means there are strict guidelines and rules to restore it to safely host over 100 visitors per day.

Explaining the significance of the museum’s collections, Barić says: “we have one of a kind in Croatia artefacts from 19th century and from the so-called Spring of Nations period.” These collections are “very important to Croatian national history and also for European history because of the tumultuous political changes in Europe at that time”. 

Exhibits include collections of historical arms and armour from historical figures like Ljudevit Gaj, known as the father of the Croatian national revival, and soldier and politician Josip Jelačić, as well as the oldest Croatian tricolour flags, religious artefacts and 20th Century art. 

Chimneys toppled 

The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb also suffered in the March 2020 earthquake, which caused four tall chimneys to topple over and crash through the roof on to the top floor of the building. This caused serious structural damage and over 250 tonnes of debris had to be dug out from a second-floor corridor, the museum’s director, Miroslav Gašparović, tells bne IntelliNews. Elsewhere the damage was less serious, and the collections escaped relatively lightly. Approximately 200 of the more than 100,000 museum items were damaged and around 20 destroyed, including a baroque cupboard that had been in the corridor where a chimney fell.

The Museum of Arts and Crafts building is also historically significant, having been designed by the German architect Hermann Bollé, who first came to Zagreb to help fellow architect Friedrich von Schmidt build the city's cathedral, and stayed for the rest of his life, becoming one of the foremost architects in the city of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb. 

The neo-Renaissance palace has been shared by the museum and the School of Applied Arts and Crafts since the beginning, though it was periodically put to other uses, including as a military hospital in wartime. Just months after it opened, the newly built museum was damaged in the November 1880 earthquake. This time around, the worst damage concerned the chimneys that were added in the mid-20th century, while some of the original chimneys stayed more or less intact. Even before the 2020 quakes hit, however, Gašparović says the building was in need of renovation.

Competing for space 

Unlike the Croatian History Museum, parts of the Museum of Arts and Crafts have been opened to visitors post-quake, with art and sculpture exhibitions on the ground floor, as well as an exhibition dedicated to the earthquake, named the Shaken Museum of Arts and Crafts: from Earthquake to Earthquake 1880-2020.  

“It was psychologically very important after the COVID lockdown, after the quake to pretend as much as we could that life [is] going on more or less normally,” says Gašparović.

Getting the museums renovated and fully reopened is no easy task, even with the EU funds extended to help Croatia with its reconstruction efforts. Just evacuating the buildings so that work can start is a huge task. 

Around 60% of the Museum of Arts and Crafts’ holdings had been evacuated by the end of 2021, meaning that around 70,000 museum artefacts had been moved to places adapted to become museum storage, but space for more than 30,000 more artefacts still has to be found. On top of that, the museum needs space for a major library with approximately 60,000-70,000 books, its archives, documentation and 70 full-time employees. 

Then there is the collection of furniture. “We can’t send our furniture approximately 4,000 pieces to some humid space as if it was a cupboard bought in Ikea five years ago; it has to be a very, very well prepared space,” Gašparović explains. 

“Unfortunately it’s very difficult in Zagreb. We are not the only ones looking for suitable space. Other museums been damaged as well, as have other institutions, universities, academies of art and so on,” he adds.

As for the museum’s staff, some will temporarily work from the Museum of Contemporary Art, while the remainder will move down into the museum’s cellars when the reconstruction work starts.

Going online 

Museums around the world have been taking their collections online to keep up with the times and reach a wider audience. In the last two years, this process has been accelerated by the closures caused by the pandemic and, in Croatia, by the earthquakes. 

The Museum of Arts and Crafts has been successful in creating an online offering, starting with the digitalisation of its collections. “We were the first museum in Croatia that started to work with the Google Cultural Institute, and the only way you can see our old permanent exhibition is with Google,” says Gašparović. “Things started to move in this direction two to three years ago when I realised that the main way to communicate now is no longer journals, television and radio as it was 10-15 years ago, or 100 years ago.” This prompted the museum authorities to use social media like Facebook, and more recently TikTok. 

The Croatian History Museum is working on plans to open exhibitions in other Zagreb museums that are still in good shape, but for the time being it functions mainly online. 

“Our items are not available to the public in real life but we are trying switch a lot of our work online. We have a virtual exhibition on our website and are promoting objects on social media such as Facebook and Instagram. I do a lot of publishing on Instagram,” says Barić. This “makes [an] object over 100 years old more relevant to people today”, he says, as he and his colleagues are “not just publishing pictures, we are trying to make people understand what those represent to Croatian history and make them available to the public in the 21 century”. At the same time, as he says, the museum is now reaching a much wider audience beyond those actually present in Zagreb.