A month and several days after the great earthquake, which shook the ground under the Sisak-Moslavina County in destructive circles, erupting from the centre near Petrinja, the ground is shaking less and less. Now the psyche and society are vibrating instead of the earth. In the first wave of destruction, chimneys, walls and load-bearing walls fell, in the second, the pillars of what is colloquially called collective identity were rocked and translated into everyday speech, it is an emotional and orientation hole that opens after a few minutes of the living space formed into streets, squares, villages and hamlets became – prima materia.

In those days, Vlatko Čakširan, just as persistently as in previous decades, sorted through and arranged fragments of future meaning for new generations. Vlatko is a museum advisor and the director of the Sisak City Museum, best known to the public as the father of the idea of ​the Dutch House, a story that built the largest cultural project in the history of Sisak on the scattered wasteland of Sisak’s industrial heritage. When the House came to life, Vlatko said: “This is not a tombstone for Sisak industry, but the beginning of the city’s new development!” What he thinks today, we tried to find out in the days when the whole of Croatia was planning its COVID Museum Night, and Vlatko, just a few days before, sent a new initiative: the collecting of old Sisak postcards. As a desperate reminder of the city when it seemed to everyone that it didn’t exist.

Vlatko Čakširan
Vlatko Čakširan, museum advisor and director of the Sisak City Museum; Source: Archive Vlatko Čakširan

How did you personally experience the days when, with the demolition of the houses, what is called the identity of a community collapsed. Is it possible to draw the line after a month, to determine the damage, not only the material one but also the one that happened on the spiritual plane?

The earthquake that hit Sisak and its surroundings significantly damaged the cultural heritage that is part of our identity and this has opened the possibility for better development after the accelerated deindustrialisation that has gripped the area since the 1990s. Cultural heritage began to be seen as a capacity that could contribute to its development and give it new values and partially replace the economic entities that once operated in the city. There was an opportunity to develop the hitherto underutilized capacities and, based on that, to start the whole local community, which is connected to this heritage in various ways, such as the industrial one. Particularly if we take into account that the cultural heritage of the city is part of its strong identity that has been shaped through a history of longevity. From ancient times to modern times. Each period left behind certain “marks” in space that have become the “marks” of our identity such as the archaeological remains, the fortress of the Old Town, the Old Bridge, and so on.

Now that I see the consequences of the earthquake, I can conclude that the fight for the identity of the city is ahead of us again, because the number of damaged buildings is exceptional, and the reconstruction will be long-lasting.

As a great local patriot, I always viewed the city as the totality of everything in it. I also viewed every historical object as part of its overall identity. I believed that with the destruction of a building a part of our identity also collapses, so I fought to give each building the right to visibility and to explain to people what it meant for us and our city. Now that I see the consequences of the earthquake, I can conclude that the fight for the identity of the city is ahead of us again, because the number of damaged buildings is exceptional, and the reconstruction will be long-lasting. The only thing that comforts me is that the activities we carried out in the previous period in the promotion of cultural heritage will now alleviate the issue of restoration because the local community is more sensitised to this issue than it was before.

You launched an initiative to collect old postcards that show what Sisak looked like in the days before the “great quake”. You said you are doing this because you are convinced that “people should be encouraged to start thinking about the future, to give them back their optimism. It is said that something needs to be removed, demolished, however, these buildings have their own history, they are connected to important individuals and families. If we remove them, we lose part of our urban identity”. How did people react?

The action was prompted for several reasons. It was primarily a desire not to forget what our city looked like before the earthquake and to encourage reflection on its further development precisely through the preservation of its urban identity. First of all the Central European one. It was also inspired by the ideas of some individuals who believed that some parts of the city should be demolished and something new built. I considered such thinking dangerous at a time when the city is vulnerable after the earthquake and when it is “normal” that people are outraged by the situation and are looking for some new solutions that have no basis in the history of the city. Old postcards and photographs are an ideal medium to convey the “memory of the city” to a wider circle of people and to encourage empathy for buildings that are now damaged and that depend solely on us.

I believe that decisions on whether to demolish something or not should be left to experts in various fields, and not to the elements.

Source: Archive of the Sisak City Museum

However, the voice of the public is extremely important here, so the old postcards and photographs should have encouraged the local community to take a critical attitude towards encroaching on their identity. Of course, this does not exclude the modernisation of the city. In fact, it is in this earthquake that I see the framework for the “new urbanisation” of Sisak in which the city centre could be arranged with the addition of new urban elements that will give the city new value as a city has been upgraded throughout history and each historical period has left something recognisable today. Of course, this new phase of urbanisation must also take into account its historical heritage. The worst thing would be to leave the reconstruction of the city to the elements and solutions that will harm its urban identity. This is why our action is important because we point to the historical and cultural layers of the city that were not created overnight but were formed over the centuries and have their own logic of creation. I must emphasise that in the process of reconstruction, we must not forget the elements that are extremely important, and they are reflected through the economic function of the city. Not only must houses be renovated, but quality economic frameworks must also be established that will be sufficient for the smooth development of the city. In such economic development, I also see a place for cultural heritage.

I can say that I am extremely satisfied with the results of the action because we received a large number of postcards and photographs with motifs of the city, which shows how the local community has been motivated. As the action was covered in the media, people from other cities sent materials with motifs of Sisak, which pleasantly surprised me. The action is continuing on our Facebook pages.

I presume that this little action is actually the beginning of a big renovation project. How do you see the role of museums and heritage interpreters in restoration? Are you planning any other similar initiatives and cooperatives in the Banija area?

It was through this action that we emphasised that the role of the museum in the reconstruction of the city is important. By preserving the identity and memory of the city, we are actually thinking about its future. Although museum institutions are perceived as “closed and not interested in change enough”, I believe that with our activities we are doing the exact opposite. We encourage the potentials of the past to be harnessed in future development. The interpretation of certain parts of history is extremely important for raising local communities to a higher level, and not for “petrifying” one’s own position. Moving forward is extremely important and any stops in time and space are not good. However, I always repeat that the identity and potentials that arise from it must not be forgotten. They are at our fingertips just needing to be scratched. Perhaps the best example of this is the facility called the Dutch House Industrial Heritage Centre, located in the centre of Sisak and connecting the identity of the city and its rich industrial past with modern elements that better encourage its future development. I believe that such elements can be stimulating for thinking about development in the area of Banija, which has exceptional potential.

Source: Archive of the Sisak City Museum

Can your experiences from your Dutch House project help you create a renovation strategy? At the same time, I also mean ways of financing. Because it is obvious that the local community does not have the ability to stand financially behind such a task. How do you see the role of the state as well as the European Union?

I believe that the European Union will play a crucial role in the reconstruction of our space because such a large amount of financial resources can hardly be borne by any country in Europe. The funding model is clear. What I am afraid of is the bureaucracy that is part of the implementation of every EU-funded project that very often puts the procedure first and the project second. Regulatory bodies often rejected reports because of a single lipa and put the people who are working on projects in an awkward position. Although control is needed, it must certainly not be the one that might slow down the implementation of projects. Renovation is also an opportunity to form teams of experts who could implement projects over the long term in this area.

This period is ideal for gaining experience in the implementation of projects that will then help in the period ahead.

I also put culture in that context. We in Sisak were certainly helped by the realisation of the Dutch House Industrial Heritage Info Centre project because the experience gained there is invaluable and extremely useful for the future. This earthquake could definitely be a new beginning for the whole of Banija.

Source: Archive of the Sisak City Museum

Can the energy of the Dutch House influence the reversal of the perception of Sisak and Banija in the process of reconstruction? What is Banija in Croatia? According to the current mode, it would be said – a forgotten land in which patriotism is exhausted only by calling Banija Banovina?

Almost all the people I meet ask me about the fate of the Dutch House in the earthquake. This tells me that the project is extremely important to the whole community and that it has succeeded in being a cohesive body. Interest in this building indicates that we should focus on similar projects in Sisak and Banija at this time when the issue of local identities is being tested, especially in the context of the idea of demolishing buildings in the old urban cores of Petrinja and Glina.

Which, in your opinion, should be the mainstays of the post-earthquake interpretation of heritage. When you mentioned Sisak, you pointed out five strongholds: archaeological remains, the Old Town fortress, famous for the battle with the Ottomans, the Old Town, the natural heritage with three rivers – Kupa, Sava and Odra and Lonjsko Polje Nature Park and finally the industrial heritage. Do you have a similar vision for the county and Banija?

What should be focused on in the interpretation is definitely the European identity of our space. Culturally, this area has been a crossroads of cultures for centuries and this should become an important fulcrum in considering the interpretation of heritage. It is a common good not only for us who live in this area but it also has a much broader context. Individual interpretation and the separation of separate locations in the interpretation is one level, but connecting in a broader context is certainly a higher level from which the whole space will benefit.

Source: Archive of the Sisak City Museum

How to get the population of Banija, who are currently in such a difficult existential situation, interested in such projects. How to point out to someone who survives in a container the importance of preserving the special rural and urban identity of Banija, especially the one related to rural life. Namely, after the earthquake, the question is how many villages and hamlets will be able to survive at all? How to involve young generations in this story?

I believe that cultural institutions in our area must use this period to strengthen their own capacities and set clear guidelines for action in the future. For now, the public action of a number of institutions has been disabled due to the COVID-19 virus and the earthquake, so they can focus on “internal” development and be ready for the time when they will be able to re-establish their activities. It is very difficult to expect that people in the affected areas will be thinking about the protection of cultural heritage at this moment when their basic existence is first and foremost, but it is the cultural institutions that should encourage the preservation of heritage and overall heritage. Involving children and young people in such incentives is of great importance for the future development of the area.

The great earthquakes that struck different parts of the world resulted in special museum projects. I thinking of earthquake museums, for example, in San Francisco, Osaka, Kobe and Christchurch. Do you think that such a project could be tried in the long term in Banija? How attractive could such a story in our country be to tourists? Do you think that a “Petrinja Earthquake House”, so to speak, could, like those mentioned around the world, attract people from other parts of Croatia and abroad to come to Banija?

I don’t know how much these museums would correspond to our circumstances since in the areas mentioned, earthquakes are almost a part of everyday life and even a part of the identity of individual communities. With them, such museums have a much broader meaning than ours and it is likely that people will be much more interested in museums in these areas than with us here where there are earthquakes every hundred years and where there is no “culture of life” with earthquakes. In our country, more attention should be focused on education related to natural disasters, which would be conducted by kindergartens, and in this context, an interpretation centre could be created related to these issues. This would be extremely important to the local community. But what else can I say other than that this area has exceptional heritage capacities that in the future can ensure its quality development and attract people.

Interview conducted by: Josip Antić for Muses