Austria to the aid of the Croatian heritage as war rages

Old historical ties revived as the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with government blessing, devises a conservation package


A fact-finding mission went out from the Viennese museums from 7 to 10 January and toured the areas around Karlovac in western Croatia and Osijek in eastern Slavonia. This was one of the first practical consequences of the conference held in Zagreb 14 and 15 December last under the auspices of Francesca Thyssen’s Arch Foundation, and with the support of Austria’s premier museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Croatian Ministry of Culture.

A member of the fact-finding mission, Dr Pfaffenbichler of the Kunsthistorisches, told The Art Newspaper that he was in no doubt that churches and cultural buildings such as archives and theatres had been deliberately targeted. He said that the most urgent need now was for suitable storage for the works of art, removed in great haste to the vaults of castles. “In some of these the humidity reaches 90%”, he said, “and if the works remain there long they will suffer badly”. The Kunsthistorisches Museum was planning a conference for later in January to hear from Croat museum colleagues what their conservation needs are.

When asked why his museum was leading in help for the damaged artistic heritage of Croatia (see also p. 10), Dr Wilfried Seipel, Director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, said: “Your own newspaper asked why no museums were doing anything. I spoke to Carter Brown [Director of the National Gallery, Washington] about the problem, and then we had a desperate plea from an ancient Dubrovnik family. I put Francesca Thyssen in contact with the right people for the Zagreb conference at very short notice and we had a very positive reaction, with messages of support from the Prince of Wales and most major directors: from the Tate, the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery in London, Dube in Berlin...Of course, we have always had close relations with our counterparts in Croatia because of the old historical links”.

In the event, seventeen museum directors and curators, with a heavy preponderance from the former territories of the Austro-Hungarian empire (of which Croatia was part until 1919) but also from Copenhagen, Stockholm, Germany and Italy, went to Zagreb. “The problem”, said Seipel, “ is whether it is not almost frivolous to be spending time on art when people are being killed and their homes have been flattened. But the tutelage of art is our profession, so we are doing what we can in this respect”.

He confirmed that he had the support of the Austrian government for his policy: from the Vice-Chancellor of the Republic; from the Bundesministerium für Wissenschaft und Forschung to supply training and materials, and from the Bürgermeister of Vienna. The Museum would be mounting an exhibition in the near future on the Croatian artistic heritage and Seipel also hoped that Unesco would respond soon to the urgent appeal sent out by the December Zagreb conference. “We asked for precise inventories of the destroyed, looted and transported Croatian heritage to be compiled and sent to the Serbian authorities, for them to be held accountable. We have had no reply to date. Unesco is, unfortunately, very bureaucratic”.