Zagreb Earthquake and Museums

While I have started with initiatives of sharing virtual museum resources for the times of social distance, there is a need to make a special article about something else – the recent Zagreb Earthquake.

The first photo of this post was taken in the Archaeological Museum of Zagreb in 2019. Sadly, the second photo represents the levels of destruction found there, just like it happened in several other museums in Zagreb.

Archaeological Museum Zagreb
In January 2019 I was taking mirror selfies in the Archaeological Museum, in front of the very same artefacts and vitrines that got destroyed in this earthquake.
Zagreb Earthquake - Archaeological Museum
Notice the mirrors? Sooo sad…

So where to start?

It was Saturday, March 21, 2020.

Croatia reported an increased number of new confirmed cases of coronavirus infection during that day, and the new measures have been made. Despite the recommendations about social isolation, closures of museums, schools, restaurants, shopping malls, people didn’t easily listen to recommendations. Elders and children were playing together in local parks. Not good.

Therefore, the government decided to declare a strict lockdown. No moving between towns and cities as spending time outside the homes was also restricted.

Nothing else made the news and many people were just irritated, annoyed, or simply perplexed and not being able to think about anything else.

On Sunday, March 22, shortly after 6 in the morning, a 5.3-5.5 magnitude earthquake hit the country’s capital, Zagreb.

Suddenly, many people were not able to #stayathome. Their homes were damaged. Many historical buildings had their roofs fallen, walls broken, and the whole electrical and heating systems unsafe.

I said that everyone should be happy to have a home to stay at in these times. Before you ask me about it, I have to say I am fine because my address is on the coast, about 180 kms away from Zagreb.

Cultural heritage and disasters

The social aspect of this disaster is yet to be measured, and we also don’t know yet if it affected the spread of that virus everyone is talking about. These are the topics for another article and website, while I now want to primarily focus on museums.

This Facebook post comes from Croatia’s largest museum, the Museum of Arts and Crafts (Muzej za umjetnost i obrt), in which I once worked as a tour guide. I must confess I was pretty devastated after seeing these pictures.

This is not the first big Zagreb Earthquake…

In 1880, Zagreb was hit by an earthquake slightly stronger than this one. Most of the existing buildings were damaged to the point that they couldn’t be repaired but only demolished. Even the old, historical cathedral, a mix of centuries of architectural styles, was unrecognisable.

Zagreb Earthquake 1880
In the early days of photography in 1880, several photographers captured post-disaster photos of Zagreb. This one is a work of Ivan Standl.

The city proceeded to be restored and rebuilt into its former glory with then-modern, safer engineering methods. Some new buildings were ensured to be more resistant to earthquakes, the way it could be back then. Earthquake-resistant architecture and engineering were still in their early days back in the time. Only in 1964, after the disastrous Skopje earthquake, the laws in then-Yugoslavia enforced the strict earthquake safety standards on buildings.

Therefore, too many historical buildings in Zagreb suffered damages, some of them being museums. The previously mentioned Archaeological Museum contains many artefact of global significance. It includes the Vuńćedol Dove, found on the area of today Eastern Croatia, Egyptian mummies, Greek and Roman artworks, along with one of the most precious pieces of ancient Etruscan heritage, to name a few.

Several museums posted sad pictures of damages on their Facebook pages. So, for the utter respect to them, I prefer to share the original posts to make people know about these museums.

Secondary damages

Not only older, historical buildings suffered. It makes us question general safety standards in museums and heritage buildings in general.

Since its inauguration in 2007, The Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the most unique buildings in Zagreb. For being so recent, it should not suffer damaged, but unfortunately it happened. Aside from small ruptures in walls, the biggest damage was a systemic one.

The museum’s fire detection system had a sensor that reacts when temperature suddenly increases. At that point when the fire is detected, the boxes with fire extinguishers break, releasing the water in the space. For some reason, the earthquake made these boxes break, causing floods in the museum.

There are more museums in Zagreb that suffered damages, and I would like everyone to be aware of that. In conclusion, I will say similar things I said after the devastating fires of the National Museum of Brazil and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I need to say that safety of cultural treasures are not a joke. The underpaid and often unmotivated museum workers often try to urge but their voices are too silent.

Often criticized for their lack of productivity, many museum workers didn’t have any opportunity to learn wider skills such as management. Most international organisations and ministries of cultures insist on the definition of museums being “not for profit” or even forbidding them to organise commercial activities, while such practices could be vital for necessary financial health of these institutions.

That would allow money for works that could prevent damages in cases of earthquake, fire, or flood.

EDIT: December 30, 2020

There was another severe earthquake in central Croatia, just a few days before the end of the crazy 2020. That one was much worse in a way that it destroyed homes of many poor elders and low income families. On the other hand, most museums in Zagreb reopened by September, and they were not as affected by the most recent earthquake.

I also made a special opinion article about standing up for museums in difficult times (in Croatian).

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