UNESCO, ICCROM and ICOM support Croatia’s post-earthquake response for cultural heritage amid COVID-19

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UNESCO has taken swift action following two magnitude 5.3 and 5.1 earthquakes that struck the city of Zagreb, Croatia on 22 March 2020. The largest earthquakes to hit the Croatian capital in the last 140 years, this disaster was compounded by a lockdown due to the current COVID-19 crisis. In response, UNESCO, ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) used online tools to support the capacity of Croatian museum and heritage professionals to deal with this multi-layered crisis.

The widespread destruction caused by the earthquake did not spare the city’s unique cultural heritage, resulting in the collapse of one of the towers of the Cathedral of Zagreb, damage to a large number of public and residential buildings in the old town, as well as valuable exhibits and collections at a number of the city’s iconic museums.

In response to the earthquake, UNESCO, in cooperation with ICCROM, and ICOM with its Croatian National Committee and its International Committee for Museum Management (INTERCOM), and the Museum Documentation Centre and Ethnographic Museum in Zagreb, co-organized a first online workshop for museum directors in Croatia on 4 and 5 May 2020. Entitled “Learning from Disasters and Pandemics”, the workshop, which was attended by over eighty professionals – namely directors of museums, museologists, cultural heritage experts, engineers, and policy-makers – aimed to enhance the capacities of museum directors in Croatia to effectively manage the twin disasters induced by the earthquake and the COVID-19 crisis.

The workshop discussions revealed that the current COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the impact of the earthquake on cultural heritage, resulting, for example, in important delays in evacuation of collections at risk due to sanitary and lockdown measures, and the interruption of ongoing renovation projects at museums which may take much longer to finalize in light of the current health crisis.

“We are in an unprecedented situation. COVID-19 is challenging international, national, and institutional capacities and coordination mechanisms to respond to disasters such as the earthquake in Croatia, which had a significant impact on culture, including museums”, said Ernesto Ottone R., UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture. “Despite these challenges, UNESCO continues to support its Member States to protect cultural heritage, including through remote capacity-building initiatives and expertise.”

“COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns have left cultural heritage vulnerable to a variety of risks. Combine that with additional hazards and you end up with museums and national institutions that are overwhelmed and in need of support”, said Webber Ndoro, ICCROM Director-General. “Through online training conceived within the framework of our programme on First Aid and Resilience for Cultural Heritage, and the resources and expertise that we make available, ICCROM aims to help cultural decision-makers make meaningful and strategic choices to safeguard and preserve heritage.”

The Museum of Arts and Crafts, the Croatian History Museum, and the Croatian School Museum have suffered significant structural damage and are no longer accessible for the time being. The Museum of Arts and Crafts had recently marked its 140th anniversary on 17 February 2020, representing one of the first institutions of its kind to have been established in Europe in the late 19th century.

Similarly, the Zagreb Archaeological Museum and the Croatian Museum of Natural History are now temporarily inaccessible. The Archaeological Museum – which contains over 450,000 artefacts – has sustained severe damage to its permanent display and objects.

The workshop gave the participants an opportunity to learn and discuss the process for undertaking damage and risk assessments for museums, collections, and staff after the earthquake while taking into account the additional challenge that COVID-19 poses. The workshop covered the key steps in developing a coordinated plan of action to address recovery needs and mechanisms, involving concerned actors from the emergency management, cultural heritage, and policy fields, as well as local communities. Reinforcing the critical role of the museums in psycho-social recovery and their contribution to the well-being of communities was also discussed.

This marks a first step in UNESCO’s ongoing support to post-earthquake response efforts for the cultural heritage of the city of Zagreb. UNESCO has put at the disposal of the Croatian authorities and institutions its roster of international experts to provide, in the short term, remote technical advisory services, as well as access to its Heritage Emergency Fund to undertake emergency stabilization measures at key cultural heritage sites in Zagreb.