New Museum of Illusions in Zagreb


Like any capital city, Zagreb in Croatia have a number of fine museums. From the archaeological museum which is home to a fascinating variety of collections, including items from prehistoric times such as Vucedol, Greek and Roman times and the Medieval period, as well as an Egyptian Mummy and a superb collection of coins, notes and other forms that were once used as payment, to the museum of broken hearts, hosting exhibits donated by people from across the world, with an accompanying story of a past relationship offering a fascinating yet brief glimpse into something so private, personal and tragic.

IMG_2009This summer an interesting new museum has opened its doors,  the Museum of Illusions. The visitors can see more then 70 exhibits, including the largest hologram exhibitions in this part of Europe.

In this new museum you can defy gravity in a room where water flows uphill, see your friends grow or shrink right before your eyes, get lost in a maze of mirrors, serve somebody`s head on a tray or just climb up onto the ceiling and make sure you take a photo of your accomplishment in the Rotated Room.

I visited the museum of illusions Saturday evening, and to my surprise there was a long queue of visitors patiently waiting to enter even at eight in the evening. The museum seems to be a very popular attraction, and it should be because this place is not like most other museums about facts, it is about illusionary experiences.

Museums have many roles, responsibilities and functions, some of which arose with the origin of western museums hundreds of years ago, others very new. The purpose of museums in the 21st century, in this age when we can find all facts and illustrations online,  is is a major debate in the field of Museum Studies. Some historical roles have included the museum as a place for knowledge, academic research and educational institution, or both.

IMG_2014Most museums continue to perform in these roles, although more recently the museum has been championed as a place of social interaction, and even a space for experimentation, invention and innovation where visitors can learn how to get involved.

Tom Tits Experiment in the city where I was born in Sweden is one such place. It is is a huge building filled with experiments for young and old to try out together and experience, and as they do so, learn about the natural laws of physics.

Another experience centre is Universeum, a public science centre and museum in Gothenburg, which brings together animals, nature, technology and masses of experiments. In just one day you can go on safari in the rainforest, head out into space, dive into the depths of the world’s oceans and walk through the Swedish wilderness.

With the Museum of Illusions, Zagreb have gained a lovely new attraction, on par with Camera Obscura in Edinburgh. I like it, as I think museums should engage visitors with content rather than brand.

IMG_2011Museums with strong brands or those that inhabit iconic buildings are increasingly used as cultural motifs in the destination-marketing strategies of public tourist bodies. Recent examples include the use of the British Museum in Visit Britain’s Culture is Great campaign, or the Turner Contemporary as a symbol of Margate’s brand enhancement.

Museums are important attraction elements in the visitor economy of cities, and even when museums do have a brand to fit the destination-marketing strategies, in the days of TripAdvisor and many other online forums, disappointed visitors can quickly turn marketing campaigns built on brands into the clichés they often are, by treating the tourism market as undifferentiated.

Research shows that there is strong, positive emotional attachment to museums by both visitors and non-visitors. Indeed, it appears that attitudes toward museums have become more favourable over the last generation as many museums shed their image of stuffiness and sterility and become more entertaining and interactive.

One museum that I like that have done so is the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, close to where I live. It used to be a very stuffy place, hosting the collections of Prince Albert I from his numerous maritime expeditions. Since some years, it is a vital exhibition space, where the original collections remains in a reorganised, more exiting form, and are complemented with temporary exhibitions, such as last years shark tank, where children could touch, engage and learn about the most voracious beings in our oceans.

Cabinet of curiosities

Museums now are seen as having an active role in sharing new knowledge rather, than as passive buildings simply storing objects.

IMG_2012Good museums are more than just brands and buildings, they are also storytellers and experience centres, who convey distinctive forms of inspiration and information through their collections, exhibitions, events and narratives.

There are reasons for hope. Many museums I have visited both in the distant past and revisited recently have surprised me with new story-telling ambitions. The Swedish History Museum in Stockholm is one, where the new Viking exhibition brings the era of Viking culture and legends to life. The remakes of Imperial War Museum in London and  the South African Museum of Military History are two other good examples, where the previous exhibitions of objects of war have been transformed into discouraging experience journeys of human conflict.

Also the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is a good example, where each visitor gets either a black or a white ticket, and then enters the museum accordingly, through either the white or the black pathway.

Rather than being subsumed or sidelined by destination-marketing strategies, there is an opportunity for all museums to engage tourists by pursuing content-driven approaches instead, and gain reputation by providing excellent, memorable experiences, just as the new Museum of Illusions does. If you happen to pass by Zagreb, I recommend a visit.

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