Consequences of unprecedented earthquake in Zagreb

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Aerial footage of the damage to the Zagreb Cathedral (Croatia) caused by the 5.5 magnitude earthquake that devastated the city on Sunday, 22 March 2020. Image courtesy of Miona Milisa.

By Mirta Pavić

In the early morning of 22nd March, a devastating earthquake shook the Croatian capital, Zagreb. Only two days after the state agencies had introduced strict measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, we were dealt a blow that shifted our focus away from the battle against the dangerous epidemic.

Not only did the earthquake jeopardize the entire population of the city, taking the life of a 15-year-old girl, but it also laid to waste a huge part of the architectural heritage in Zagreb’s downtown area where most buildings were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century. The epicenter of the first quake, 5.5 on the Richter scale, was northeast of the city’s center, and it has been followed by over one hundred milder aftershocks over the past four days. Since the first strike ravaged the greater part of the cultural and historical area and its protected buildings, these successive smaller quakes have contributed to further destabilization of the damaged structures. Religious architecture, hospitals, schools, university buildings, and public institutions were transformed into scenes of devastation.

The area that has suffered the greatest damage is the oldest urban nucleus, which includes the Upper Town and Kaptol with its historical settlements, and most of the Lower Town, also known as Lenuzzi's or Green Horseshoe. It represents the most important urban intervention in the history of Croatian architecture, and in 1962 it was entered into the Register of Cultural Goods of the Republic of Croatia as a protected urban entity. This part of the city is home to many cultural institutions that have suffered extensive damage as can be seen from what some museums have posted on social media, detailing the horrific consequences. There is damage to both the buildings and the holdings of the Museum of Arts and Crafts (1888), the Archaeological Museum (the Vranyczany-Dobrinović Palace, 1879), and the Ethnographic Museum (formerly Obrtnidom, 1903) housed in a building that has fared slightly better owing to a recent front renovation.

The institutions that have suffered significant damage to their buildings, but not to the holdings, include the Croatian Sports Museum (19th century), the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (1880), the Modern Gallery (the Vranyczany Palace, 19th century, architect Otto Hofer), the Art Pavilion (one of the first prefabricated structures in Europe, 1898), the Mimara Museum (a complex consisting of grammar school buildings, 1895), and the Croatian School Museum (1889).

In the Upper Town the damage was so severe that a number of museums are now off limits: the Croatian Natural History Museum (the Amadeo Palace, 1797), the Croatian History Museum (the Vojković-Oršić-Kulmer-Rauch Palace, 1764), and the State Archives in Zagreb (the Erdödy-Drašković Palace, 18th/19th century). The building of the Croatian Parliament (Sabor) has been so badly compromised that sessions can no longer be held there. The Zagreb City Museum (the Convent of the Poor Clares and Zakmardi Granary, 16th century), the Popov Toranj tower (13th century), Dr. Ivan Ribar and CajtaDujšinRibar Collection (the Jelačić Palace), the KlovićeviDvori Gallery (the Jesuit monastery, 17th century), and the Meštrović Atelier have also suffered structural damage, but the holdings have remained largely spared.

The top has broken off one of the Cathedral spires, and the Archbishopric Residence and the Monastery of St. Francis of Assisi (with three libraries holding books from the 14th and 15th centuries) have not escaped unharmed either. The degree of damage to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Novi Zagreb was minimal since it is located outside the city center and also because it is the only Zagreb museum built specifically with this purpose in mind.

The City Institute for Conservation of Cultural and Natural Heritage is now working with the Ministry of Culture to take stock in the aftermath of the powerful and sudden earthquake and to assess what buildings are at the greatest risk, but this will realistically be possible only once the epidemic crisis passes.

Although museum activities are secondary under circumstances such as these, museum professionals are using the situation where their movements are restricted to build a network of solidarity, exchange ideas, and develop strategies. At a time when it is crucial to analyze and plan detailed documentation of collection conditions, we are waiting to return to our workplaces so that we can launch coordinated efforts to preserve damaged objects.

So, as far as general sentiment is concerned, a graffiti on one of the buildings on the main Zagreb square that appeared after the earthquake sums it up best: Hold your head up high!

Many thanks to my colleagues and friends who helped me write this report: Slađana Latinović, Sandra Mlađenović, Miroslav Gašparović, Iva Čukman, Mihaela Grčević and Matija Dronjić.


By Jerry Podany

Mirta Pavić’s description of what our colleagues in Croatia are facing is everyone’s nightmare: a combination of events that calls for an immediate and coordinated response, while at the same time impaired by a health crisis.  The efforts and commitment of the Croatian conservation and heritage community are an inspiration to us all.
Response began almost immediately, even under difficult circumstances.  For example, an archive of available information, particularly from social media platforms, has been developed by Sagita Mirjam Sunara (Conservation-Restoration Department, The Arts Academy in Split).  And, as Mirta has written, the community is coordinating while they prepare for a time when they can fully and safely respond.
While the focus should remain on responding to this crisis, we should also take full advantage of what can be learned from thorough documentation of evidence and events.  Both can be mined later for guidance on how to reduce the impact of short- and long-term future challenges.  Such information helps us all be better prepared and better able to respond.  It also potentially reduces the extent of the needed response by reducing vulnerability through mitigation efforts.
How thoroughly we are prepared for these kinds of events is always a moving target, dependent upon insight, experience, and support.  Insight and experience can be greatly enhanced by our growing body of core literature and research along with the willingness of those who have been through such trials to openly share information.  On the other hand, support to develop advanced mitigation and response plans can be especially difficult since the expenditure of resources is always a hard sell when in response to something that has not yet occurred and whose likelihood of occurrence is measured in statistical probabilities.  After all, the last major earthquake of such magnitude in Zagreb was 140 years ago. Recently updated hazard maps, however, presented clear warnings of the danger, and advanced preparation in the face of such information is common sense. Such preparation also reflects the core goal of conservation: to reduce vulnerability for the purpose of preservation.  Although “Preventive Conservation” is a redundant phrase (prevention of loss and damage has always been, and should always be, at the center of modern conservation), the enthusiastic reception of the term as a specific specialty signals that preemptive mitigation efforts are now, more than ever, part of the conservator’s common tool kit and responsibility.
As we await updates from Zagreb and as we send support in whatever form possible and appropriate, we should also glean whatever we can from the measures taken, or not taken, to reduce vulnerability to such hazards.  What worked, what did not, and why?  It will require our Croatian colleagues to add additional categories to their documentation efforts such as “in what direction did the object/furniture/fixture fall?” or “what part of the object or mount failed and why?” Armed with such thorough documentation, a full analysis as to why, for example, seemingly similar objects that were next to each other responded very differently to the earthquake, can be undertaken after the initial response is completed. All of this information, captured at the moment before response intervention, will provide valuable information that will advance efforts to reduce vulnerability and mitigate damage from future earthquakes.  Such efforts are increasingly gaining attention worldwide and a model for such efforts already exists among seismic engineers. Volunteer engineers from the international community capture invaluable information about the earthquake response of structures and critical infrastructure, such as the Virtual Earthquake Reconnaissance Team formed by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. The findings are then shared widely in formats such as EERI’s special reports in their journal “Earthquake Spectra. We would be wise to follow their example.
Perhaps this is the event that will prompt our professional organizations to develop a platform specifically intended to encourage the exchange of such information about mitigation.  This resource would welcome and encourage the input from a broad range of other professionals such as seismologists, engineers, architects, and mount makers (the latter an especially essential group in preventive conservation).  After all, the next major earthquake somewhere in the world is not only probable, it is inevitable.  We should do what we can, now, to reduce the vulnerability of our collections.  And we should learn all we can from this, the latest unfortunate event.


Mirta Pavić is head of the conservation department of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb (MSU), Croatia. She received her M.A. in conservation from the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Mirta teaches a compulsory course on modern and contemporary art conservation at the University of Split. Her research interests include modern materials, new media, modern museum practice, and the educational role of conservation.

Jerry Podany is a past president of IIC (2007-2013) and author of When Galleries Shake: Earthquake Damage Mitigation for Museum Collections (2017).

(For the full story, aerial footage and a slideshow, read the April-May 2020 "News in Conservation" Issue 77, p. 14-17)

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In the early morning of 22nd March, a devastating earthquake shook the Croatian capital, Zagreb. Only two days after the state agencies had introduced strict measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, we were dealt a blow that shifted our focus away from the battle against the dangerous epidemic.
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