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War & Conflict

Council of Europe report emphasises danger to works of art in emergency storage

30% of the movable cultural property in Croatia needs emergency treatment

Strasburg

As the war in Bosnia fills the news reports, the effects, both direct and indirect, of the war in Croatia tend to be forgotten. A report published 12 April by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on war damage to the museums, galleries and collections there says that rapid intervention by the international community in the form of equipment and conservation materials is needed.

The problems have been identified by British conservator, Barbara Roberts, who, at the request of the International Council of Museums (icom), and as part of a contract with the Getty Conservation Institute, spent three weeks touring all the regions of unoccupied Croatia in October 1993 (there are eight museums and galleries in occupied territory of which the Museum Documentation Centre in Zagreb has little or no news).

While by the end of 1993 forty-seven Croatian museums (over 20% of the total) had sustained various degrees of direct war damage, the evacuation of a large proportion of the collections has saved them from the danger of artillery fire and seizure by occupying forces. The major exception the museums of Vukovar.

The greatest threat to what remains in Croatia is the inadequate conditions under which cultural goods are being stored. Some institutions have crammed their collections into their own storage, while the National Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments estimates that about 6,000 crates of evacuated objects are in thirty “safe storage” depots and in fourteen large ones. Of the latter, only two or three have satisfactory climate, insect and rodent control. There are very few conservators available for emergency work and there is no money for conservation materials and equipment, storage units, archival boxes or transport vans.

Ms Roberts concludes that perhaps some 30% of the movable cultural property in Croatia needs emergency treatment. The difficulty of documenting these stored collections also means that objects may be stolen, and that the international museum community needs to be warned of the risk.

Items seen by Barbara Roberts and singled out as in particular need of assistance include the central panel of the Paolo Veneziano crucifix in the Museum of the Dominican Priory in Dubrovnik; the Luca Giordano cabinet with tortoise-shell and mother-of-pearl veneers in the Dubrovnik Museum and the manuscripts and incunabula of the Museum of the Minorite Friars, also in Dubrovnik, which are in very damp conditions. The entire Museum of Slavonia in Osijek, one of Croatia’s top museums, with 130,000 items of archaeology, ethnography, bibliography, numismatics and decorative arts housed in three buildings (one of 1772), was gravely damaged during the long attack on the town and is in immediate need of international help.

The report recommends that aid in the form of conservation, photographic and storage materials be sent by the international museum community to the Museum Documentation Centre and that museums “adopt” institutions—for example, London’s National Maritime Museum could undertake to help the Dubrovnik Maritime Museum.

At present the only outside assistance in object conservation is being given by the Arch Foundation of Lugano, which has set up a paintings restoration centre in Dubrovnik and has been providing training in documentation for restorers and conservators.

Anyone offered a work of art suspected of being stolen from Croatian territory should contact the Ministry of Culture-Institute for Protection of Cultural Monuments of Croatia, Zagreb, Ilica 44, Croatia, Tel: 385-41-426515; fax: 385-41-430851. Offers of conservation assistance should be sent to the Museum Documentation Centre, Zagreb, Mesnicka 5, Croatia. Tel: 385-41-426534; fax: 385-41-430851.