Rescuing a museum submerged under eight metres of water - a Central Bohemian miracle.

Museum in Roztoky

The little town of Roztoky, just a few kilometres north of Prague is a perfect place for a day trip from the city. Its main landmark is the old castle - originally a moated gothic manor house - down by the River Vltava - which houses the Museum of Central Bohemia. Among its exhibits the castle includes a room furnished in the style of the mid-19th century, when Roztoky first became a popular out-of-town resort for better-off Prague citizens. Not far from the main castle there is also a mill and a delightful little building from the turn of the 20th century that was once the studio of the acclaimed Czech artist, Zdenka Braunerova, and which she designed herself.

All this sounds very idyllic but the museum is no stranger to disaster. In the great floods of August 2002, muddy river water swept through the entire site. At the time I visited the museum, and this was the scene that greeted me when chief restorer Dusan Perlik showed me round just a few days after the floods.

"All around us there is mud, dirt, a damp smell. There is black water on the ground here and mud. [Perlik: Just now we are in the rooms of the irradiation chamber, where apparatus was used for the treatment of furniture against woodworm.] And now it's just an empty room, all the walls are covered with mud. [Perlik: This room was full of water to the ceiling, so now we are just trying to clean it. But the problem is that there is no electricity so everything is only dark]."

Those were scenes of devastation - just three and a half years ago. Last week I returned and what I found was little short of a miracle. I caught up again with Dusan Perlik to ask him about his work in the museum, but above all to find out just how much had been achieved in the short time since the floods.

"I'm responsible for the conservation of our objects and collections. Mainly we are working here on our own collections, but we also work for different museums or collectors from this region."

The last time I was here was a little over three years ago. It was just after the devastating floods that swept through much of the Czech Republic and not least through this little town, Roztoky. I remember that the building we are standing in had been under about four metres of water, right up to the roof....

"I think it was a little bit more... about six or eight metres here, because it was flooded up to the second floor. So it was up to eight metres of water. Sometimes if I'm going to work I think it just isn't possible there was so much water in this place, but there was!"

And it's quite incredible. Standing here now you would not know that there had ever been any floods. This is in the old mill that forms part of the museum next door to the castle. It's been beautifully restored.

"Yes, it was restored after the flood because it was totally devastated and we rebuilt or renovated this whole area. It was finished in 2004, we spent two years on this reconstruction, and this year we bought equipment and so on. This year we are starting to work in a completely new and renovated area."

Brauner's mill
So you have concentrated all the machinery, the equipment for restoring, in this building, the old mill. What exactly do you restore here?

"We are working mainly on archaeological objects - so metal objects, ceramics, glass, ambers, which are from our area, because we have quite a large archaeological department, and of course we are also working on paper objects, textiles, wood - it depends. We have eight people here. Everybody specializes on some material."

And is some of the restoring work that you're doing actually on objects that were damaged in the floods?

"Yes, of course we had to re-conserve many objects after the floods, but we were quite happy because we removed almost everything from this area in time. So it was not many of the objects, but some were damaged - and it was very serious damage. It was a problem with metals, because it had started corroding, and iron especially is a big problem after floods."

And I remember that some of your very modern restoring equipment was destroyed in the floods. I visited the laboratory in the castle courtyard, which was a furniture-restoring laboratory with state-of-the-art modern equipment. Have you managed to replace this equipment now?

"Yes, that was our wood-conservation laboratory against woodworm. We have repaired all this equipment. It's now been working again for two years, and now we are working as we were before the floods."

And how did you manage to cope with these problems financially? It must have cost more than any insurance company would be willing to pay, to get the museum back into its original state.

"Yes, it's the usual problem in culture. The financial problem is the biggest one, because we always have problems with finding money sources. But we were quite well insured, so I think more than half was paid by the insurance company, and of course the government helped us - the minister of culture, the region; it was quite a lot, but we still have a lot of problems because the castle was really devastated, and it will maybe take the next five years for it to be restored."

I've noticed that there still seems to be a problem with damp in the castle - that the plaster is still damaged and it's crumbling. What can you do? Do you just have to wait for it to dry out slowly?

"I think it's dried out now, but we are waiting for the renovation, because all the castle will be renovated. I think it will start next year, and it's already calculated that the price of the renovation is about 60 million crowns [a little under 3 million US dollars], so it's quite expensive. But now we have an architect who will prepare all the plans, and we hope it will start next year."

And how big is the danger that the whole thing could happen again, that there could be more floods?

"Of course there's a danger, but we have historical buildings - we can't move them, so it's a problem. But I think it was the first flood like this, so we hope it will not be coming again for a hundred or two hundred years. So we have no choice. We have to reconstruct it and wait for the next flood - but I think we won't be around any more!"

That was Dusan Perlik. Just after Christmas we'll be bringing you another report from the Museum of Central Bohemia, on a fascinating exhibition currently showing, devoted to the unusual theme of elves, gnomes and dwarves!