The coronavirus pandemic and the Zagreb earthquake have thrown attendance figures of Croatian museums twenty years back, right to 2001—the year when the number of reported visits topped one million for the first time. In 2020, our museums lost nearly four million visitors, indicating a 72% drop from 5.2 million in 2019 to 1,462,667 over the past year.

The survey conducted by the Museum Documentation Center (MDC) presents data collected from 130 out of 162 museums listed in the Register of Public and Private Museums, representing a response rate of 80.2%. Several museums listed in MDC's Register of Museums, Galleries, and Collections in the Republic of Croatia also responded to the survey.

Although lockdown ended on April 27, forcing Croatian museums to close for only a month and a half due to the pandemic—unlike the European museums closed for half a year—data on Croatian museums attendance are as devastating as in countries that have not yet opened their cultural institutions. One of the factors that further devastated Croatian museums was the March 22 earthquake. One-third of the museums in Zagreb closed their permanent exhibitions due to damages to the buildings, losing over a million visitors last year, or 78.5%—from 1,365,348 visitors in 2019 to 293,002 visitors in 2020. When we compare this with 2019, it is clear that all Zagreb museums put together recorded lower attendance in 2020 than what the Klovićevi dvori Gallery had reported a year earlier. As the most visited museum in Zagreb in 2020, the Gallery marked an 84% drop, followed by the earthquake-damaged Museum of Arts and Crafts and the Technical Museum Nikola Tesla with a 78% and 79% drop, respectively.

A million visitors also disappeared in the category of foreign tourists, which, in recent years, have constituted almost a quarter of all visitors to Croatian museums. Last year, an 81% drop was reported, from 1,228,216 tourists in 2019 to 233,341 in 2020. This percentage is probably even higher, but some museums such as Dubrovnik Museums, the Croatian Museum of Tourism, or the Museum of Apoxyomenos do not track this particular visitor category. The decimation of tourism was felt the most by the most visited Croatian museums whose high visitor figures proceed from the ancient monuments such as the Arena in Pula or Diocletian's cellars. The Museum of the City of Split, traditionally the second most visited Croatian museum, recorded a 90% drop last year, from 389,814 visitors in 2019 to 41,417 in 2020, with the sharpest decline in the category of tourist visitors—95.7%.

The Archaeological Museum of Istria, the most visited museum in Croatia for the last six years, held on to its top ranking with 163,657 visitors despite the 71% slump in 2020. In a previous survey carried out by MDC at the end of the tourist season, we learned how in just two summer months of 2020, this agile museum lost nearly four million kunas in ticket sales. Dubrovnik Museums, in the top five of the most visited museums for years, lost 86% of their visitors in 2020, and the Museums of Hrvatsko Zagorje, the fifth most visited museum last year, broke into the second place in 2020 because they had "only" lost 65.6%.

The attendance of students and young people is another category with a worrying 83% decline. With visits to museums being almost exclusively organized by school institutions, due to school closures and cancellations of school trips, the attendance dropped from 750,344 in 2019 to 122,675 in 2020.

These devastating results are consistent with the assessments and studies that ICOM and NEMO did at the global and European levels. Similar outcomes came from the most visited museums, such as the Louvre in Paris, which also lost 72% of its visitors. In Europe and the rest of the world, the pandemic caused losses of millions of visitors and hundreds of millions of euros in earnings, forcing museums to deaccession their objects to survive. In the United States alone, museums lost 30% of their staff, with every third museum facing permanent closure. Although the situation in Croatia is not entirely comparable, the only certainty, in these uncertain times, is that the recovery is going to take years. In the meantime, we should turn to our collection, our institutions, and the local community, contemplating new models of work and relationships with the communities we serve, as representatives of the sector have advocated. 

Visitor survey 2020 (pdf)

(Maja Kocijan, published originally in News from the Museum World 134, 9 February 2021; translated by Ivona Marić)