Devastation and optimism at the Museum of Central Bohemia

Museum of Central Bohemia

One of the enduring images of last month's floods was the site of a wooden sculpture, a giant chair that had adorned the terrace of the Sovovy Mlyny Gallery in Prague, being swept like a child's toy down the River Vltava. The damage caused by last month's floods to museums and galleries around the Czech Republic is shocking, and the fate of that unusual wooden sculpture was by no means unique. In Prague there was also damage to the Museum of Czech Music by the Charles Bridge and the Saint Agnes Convent just downstream, housing the National Gallery's collection of Gothic art. In the south of the Czech Republic, waters swept through the Egon Schiele Gallery in Cesky Krumlov and some two hundred kilometers to the north, the collections of the museums in the former concentration camp and ghetto in Terezin were damaged. But nowhere was the destruction on the huge scale seen at the Museum of Central Bohemia, in the little town of Roztoky just north of Prague. The museum, in the town's castle, had never been flooded, and all the experts' calculations suggested it never would. But nobody reckoned with the worst flooding in 500 years. By the time the scale of the danger became clear, it was only half an hour before the waters the River Vltava swept through the museum. Last week I visited Roztoky to see the damage for myself.

"The scene here is one of absolute devastation. All the old buildings, the old manor house, the buildings around the courtyard, they all were under at least two metres of water. Everything on the ground floor was devastated. Outside on the courtyard there are just piles of rubble. The destruction is really quite beyond belief."

"My name is Dusan Pelik and I work as the head of the Conservation Department. In the area of the castle we had about two or three metres of water, and also at the other building, the mill, there was about six or seven metres of water there. You could see only the roofs. Before the flood we tried to move everything to the first floor but it wasn't enough because six metres of water is too much."

And so what was destroyed?

Museum of Central Bohemia
"All the exhibitions of the museum were destroyed, all the conservation departments and some parts of the archive, the library and the photoarchives."

Can some of these things be saved and brought back, at least partially, to their original condition?

"I hope they will be saved because they are now frozen in a big factory near Kladno and after preparing of the conditions in our museum and in our laboratories, we would like to restore some parts of our arhives and photoarchive library."

And what about the historical artifacts? Were many destroyed?

"It was a pity because we were just starting to rebuild a store of furniture and we moved the furniture to the ground floor. So now we have about thirty pieces of furniture that were in water, and now we are trying to start working on conservation."

I'm holding a colourfully illustrated brochure that the Museum of Central Bohemia published just a short while before the floods. It seems like a different world from the mud and mess of the museum today. On the hill above Roztoky are the remnants of stone-age settlements and the earliest fortress of the Czech Premyslid dynasty going back to the ninth century. Until the floods the museum was well known, both for its archaeological collections and for the imaginative way they were displayed. It's a strange irony that after the floods, many of these exhibits once again had to be dug out from the mud. But perhaps the museum's greatest pride was its series of state-of-the art conservation laboratories - ironically enough, best known for their furniture restoration. Dusan Pelik:

Dusan Pelik
"We have two special conservation departments. One is a radiation chamber - special equipment for the treatment of furniture from woodworm. It's the only one in Central Europe and it's very expensive to repair, because it looks like it will be about two or three million crowns. The second main problem is the other laboratory. It's a plasmochemical laboratory. It's also the only one in Central Europe. It's only one room, but the equipment cost about six million crowns. Everything is damaged now and we are trying to repair or buy a new one, because it was a present from the Swiss government to the Czech Republic, and now we are trying to contact the Swiss government again and they would like to help with repairing and all these problems."

"We're now going in to look at the building where these hi-tech laboratories used to be, and it's in the cellar, to make things still worse, and there is mud, there is a damp smell. There is black water on the ground here."

[Dusan Pelik] "Just now we are in the rooms of the radiation chamber. This apparatus is used for the treatment of furniture against woodworm. "

"And now it's just an empty room. All the walls are covered with mud. You can smell the damp. This presumably was entirely under water."

Museum of Central Bohemia
"Yes, this one was full of water to the ceiling and now we are just trying to clean it, but it's a problem. We are downstairs here. There is no electricity so everything is only dark. But this is a very important space for us. Our engineer will prepare new electricity wires, because it's very important to clean and dry these rooms."

"Has anybody tried to estimate the total cost of getting the museum back to its original state?"

"It's about forty to sixty million crowns (2 million Euros) but that's without collections. I don't know how big is the damage to the collections. It's only the buildings, equipment and so on."

This all sounds like a tale of doom and gloom, but in fact, all the staff of the museum are amazingly optimistic. They are even talking of opportunities to take advantage of the floods to create new, and more imaginative exhibitions. The museum's programme director Tana Pekarkova, was astonished by the wave of solidarity immediately after the disaster. The fate of the museum captured the local public's imagination.

Tana Pekarkova
"We were amazed, the first weekend after the floods, how many people from Roztoky came to help in the initial rescue operation. There are lots of people who are still helping, but of course we have to do most of the work ourselves. We were delighted by offers from help from other museums throughout the country. Some, for example, have offered to house some of our exhibits, which is important, because it's damp everywhere here."

The time has come now for us to leave the museum in Roztoky. The staff of the museum are working long hours to clear things up. They're confident that by next summer they'll be open again. All that remains for us is to wish them the best of luck.

And you can see photographs of the Museum of Central Bohemia during and after the floods on Radio Prague's website, where you can also find details of a bank account set up to help raise money to renew the museum. And incidentally, the giant chair from the Sovovy Mlyny Gallery in Prague did turn up in the end, entangled in some trees forty kilometers downstream from Prague, battered but not broken. En route it must have floated right past the Museum of Central Bohemia in Roztoky.