By Barbara Roberts

Conservation image

In October 1993, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), with financial support from the Getty Conservation Institute, conducted a mission to the Republic of Croatia. Requested by members of ICOM, the ICOM National Committee of Croatia, and UNESCO, the mission's purpose was to survey damage to Croatian museums, galleries, and collections caused by the war of 1991 to 1993 and to identify what assistance is most needed.

As the ICOM member who carried out the 1993 mission, I returned from Croatia with vivid images of systematic destruction. Major works of art, many historic structures, and whole towns and villages with centuries of history have been destroyed or damaged almost beyond recognition. I saw houses that had been rendered uninhabitable by tanks, buildings demolished by land mines, and structures with rocket, howitzer, grenade, and shrapnel damage, some with faded UNESCO flags still flying—flags that offered no protection. A number of people interviewed believed that the flags actually drew fire.

Within Croatia are 143 institutions with 86 branch collections, containing approximately five million cultural objects. At the end of 1993, 47 of these institutions had experienced either direct damage or losses to their collections. This number could well be higher. The country's Museum Documentation Center (MDC) has little or no information for 8 of the 17 museums and galleries in Serbian-occupied Croatia. These 17 collections housed about 200,000 items.

The difficult plight of those caring for cultural property in Croatia has not changed appreciably since the mission occurred. Arts personnel, exhausted from the effects of permanent duty with insufficient food and wages slashed by inflation, face constant stress from a political situation that refuses to settle into peace. Many have died or are missing. There is, for instance, still no information on the fate of Professor Petrovic, art historian of Vukovar.

It is in Vukovar that the worst losses to museums and galleries occurred. Since its capture by Serbian forces, the contents of the town's museums—the Bauer Collection, the Vukovar Municipal Museum, the History Museum and the Ruzicka Memorial Museum—have either been destroyed or removed to Serbia. The buildings housing the last three collections were listed as national monuments; according to Croatian sources, they were all heavily damaged.

Conservation image

While in Croatia, I was shown a recording of a Serbian television program in which the Serbian Minister of Culture was discussing the major works removed from church buildings in Vukovar. The objects are purportedly being held "for conservation and safekeeping and will be returned to a rebuilt home in Vukovar at the end of the war." The ICOM Advisory Board Committee, meeting in Paris in June 1994, recommended that the Council of Europe and ICOM conduct a joint mission to Croatia and Yugoslavia to discuss the fate of the Vukovar collections.

During the 1993 mission I spoke with numerous brave and dedicated museum personnel, librarians, government staff, monks, and private citizens who have individually or in small groups, amid a brutal war, managed to protect the greater part of the movable cultural property within Croatia's borders. Through their efforts, relatively few of the nation's collections sustained direct damage.

However, despite success in removing many public collections from the dangers of warfare and seizure, these collections remain threatened. The finest of Croatia's national collection—including works from the Neolithic period, antiquity, the Renaissance, the 17th and 18th centuries, and the modern age—have been placed in storage sites that lack climate control, sufficient shelving, and, in many instances, decent roofing. These repositories are now a major cause for concern. Within the first weeks of hostilities, the country was denuded of packing supplies, and the result is that few objects are adequately protected. Serious damage is occurring from high humidity, extreme temperatures, insects, rodents, and a lack of resources to retrofit storage areas and conduct basic treatments. Storage areas are jammed with collections material, and handling space is limited.

The scarcity of museum guardians and the virtual nonexistence of alarm systems pose a genuine problem for the security of evacuated materials. There is a clear risk of theft. The international museum community should be on guard for objects from Croatia appearing on the art market.

Neither the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments, or the MDC have vehicles equipped for the transportation of artworks. Works cannot be exhibited or moved in safety until there is regional peace. Much of Croatia is still occupied by Serbian forces, and only the United Nations Protection Forces stand between the two sides. The UN may choose to withdraw from the area.

Small steps are being taken as a result of the ICOM mission report, which was published by the Council of Europe in April 1994. The American Association of Museums is planning an exchange initiative to coincide with their 1995 annual meeting in Philadelphia. The ICOM Conservation Committee has been requested to study how its members can assist, and ICOM is appealing to all national committees to do what they can to help. The ICOM National Committee of the Netherlands has donated ten thousand French francs for further assistance with ICOM's efforts in the region. In an independent effort, the government of Bavaria has restored two rooms for work on polychrome sculpture at the Château of Ludbreg in Slavonia, Croatia.

Colleagues abroad can support their hard-pressed counterparts in the region by providing supplies for emergency preventive maintenance treatments and subscriptions to professional publications, offering opportunities for training, raising funds for transport vehicles, and building informal contacts.

Once a peace agreement is signed, the region will require a major initiative for the long-term reconstruction, conservation, and preservation of cultural property. For international assistance to be effective, priorities will need to be established by the government of Croatia, in tandem with the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Institute for Restoration, and individual institutions. Similar actions will be necessary for the cultural property that remains in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A disciplined, professional, and well-planned internal and international joint effort can help save the diverse cultural property of the region for the next millennium.

Barbara Roberts is a conservator and consultant based in Seattle, Washington.