Music in Museums: Zagreb


Not every country has a museum devoted specifically to music even though many museums may have a musical collection. In this series of posts, I highlight the Music in Museums and identify the role given to the cultural form. In this post: Ethnographic Museum in Zagreb.

Ethnographic Museum  – Zagreb (visited October 2018)

Croatia has 284 museums, according to the European Group of Museum Statistics. The Croatian Museum Documentation Centre (MDC) conducted an inventory to identify the musical heritage, results are published in Muzeologija 51 magazine from 2014, finding 49 institutions holding some form of music related material collections:

  • Autographic manuscripts, copies of first editions of musical pieces;
  • Historical and traditional instruments, including a recording of their sound and recording of musical pieces;
  • Appliances for recording and reproducing sounds;
  • Music literature;
  • Music iconography, including drawings, paintings, photos, busts, and masks;
  • Biographical data on composers and performers, including certificates and diplomas, correspondence, journals, plaques and decorations; and
  • Objects related to the environment of music creation, such as furniture and personal objects, as well as homes of composers.

Sheet music is often absent in museums and instead found in the collections of archives, libraries, but also monasteries or churches. Preventing fragmentation while collecting, preserving and displaying music is a challenge, echoed in the quote below from the Muzeologija 51, where the physical (instruments in particular) are seen as partial documents of a complex whole.

“Musical heritage is tangible and intangible. Its numerous tangible forms are accumulated in museums. Among them, instruments as specific museum objects which can only be partially grasped through their material aspect.” (T. Mataija, 2014)

One museum caught my attention when I visited Zagreb: the Ethnographic Museum. The core of the collection is made up of objects that document the folklore of traditional Croatian culture. While most ethnographic museums focus on foreign cultures, the Ethnographic Museum in Zagreb devoted its collection to document the extraordinary within the daily life of its people, rural and urban, extending into the Balkan region. This is because ethnography as a science developed in Croatia together with the formation of their national identity, based on local and mostly rural traditional practice, differentiating Croatian/Slavic culture from traditions brought by foreign leaders during the Ottoman empire, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, or Venetian Republic (read more on Croatian’s rich history). Most of the museum’s collection represents objects from the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

The Department of Folk Music of the Ethnographic Museum has collected traditional local musical instruments since its foundation in 1921 (two years after the museum was opened), in collaboration with various eminent ethnomusicologists, and has become the unifying institution for musical objects initially part of other institutions, including the National Museum, the School of Music, the city of Zagreb, and private collections. It currently holds over 600 traditional musical instruments. Though there are instruments from non-European regions, these are not part of the Collection of Musical Instruments.

The exhibition of the musical instrument collection has been sporadic, reflecting changing interest in the collection. The current senior curator Head of Collections of Traditional Musical Instruments, Želijka Petrović Osmak is clearly trying to increase the visibility and value of the collection. She was responsible for publishing a magnificent catalogue, showcasing the beautiful collection, also available online.

Below (part of) the oldest object in the collection, a bagpipe made in 1751, originating from a private collection. The catalogue entry, which can be read online, presents the collection organised by type: wind instruments (e.g. flute, accordion, making 71% of the collection), vibrating instruments (e.g. rattle), vibrating membrane instruments (e.g. drum), and string instruments (e.g. violin, lyre). This classification has been used by the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM).

1751 bagpipe part

Music had an important role in the museum in the 1930s and 1940s thanks to the appointment of a musicologist as Director of the museum. Until the 1960s, collection policy followed a national identity recollection strategy for the entire Slavic region, with much field research taking place in the Balkan Peninsula. The collection is characterised by instruments that reflect a rich in cultural exchange, where the Mediterranean, Slavic, and Ottoman cultures met. Certain instruments were adopted and made part of the local culture, such as the violin, the guitar, the accordion, the trumpet and the clarinet.

The fiddle is one instrument present in the Balkan region, played by young and old, rich and poor alike. The fiddles in the collection are generally made out of maple. The website presenting the fiddle describes the instrument having head pieces often carved to depict a figure (see above), the neck is attached to a hollow body made of a single piece of wood covered with tanned skin. “There are five to ten tiny sound holes piercing the skin in order to obtain the best possible sound.” The one or two strings are tuned by means of pegs protruding from the top of the neck (see below). The level of ornamentation reflects a fiddle’s value. “The social function of the fiddle was especially pronounced at the end of a working day when everyday stories were recounted.”

All information about other instruments in the collection can be found on the collections website, including the role of the lyre, primarily used to accompany dance. “The lyre player plays the instrument sitting down with his foot thumping against the floor, while the leading dancer shouts commands in witty rhyme, often puns, so that the dancers change their moves accordingly” (Marošević and Zebec, 1998).


The research and documentation work behind the online catalogue of musical instruments of the Ethnographic Museum of Zagreb is notable, particularly as it tries to highlight the social aspect of music in shaping identity across time. The exhibition of the collection is still being developed, as the museum is currently undergoing remodelling. The online environment offers access to a small selection of the musical instruments – leaving the visitor wanting to access the rest of the collection, including the photographic archive. Below a photograph from a group of singers in Remete, taken by Vladimir Tkalčić during his ethnographic research in 1930.

Singers Remete 1930

A series of games have been developed to attract a younger audience: one can play memory (match the pairs and learn about the instruments), make puzzles of the collection, and recognize an instrument based on its sound (in three levels of difficulty).

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I am a researcher on the historic and economic aspects of digital heritage. In my free time I sing and paint.

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