{Croatia} HT Muzej

November 1, 2011

Croatia

Have you ever had one of those museum experiences, where you check out a museum with few or no expectations and come away with the most wonderful experience? I had just one of those visits when I made a stop at the HT Muzej in Zagreb, Croatia’s Museum of Post and Telecommunications.

The visit almost didn’t happen, as the forbidding entrance looked like it was closed, but after circling around it a few times, double checking the opening times on the flyer I had picked up, and wondering whether I really was in the right place, I finally made it inside. On seeing exactly how tiny the museum was and that all the interpretation was entirely in Croatian, I began to feel it had been a wasted trip but out of courtesy wanted to at least walk once round rather than immediately backing out again.

I had, however, not reckoned with the museum staff. The young man (well, he was probably my age) who emerged from the depths of the museum office welcomed me, apologised for the lack of English translations, and offered that I could ask him any questions. Before I could begin to think what I might ask about, he had launched into an impromptu guided tour. And so I learned that Zagreb had started out in 1886 with its first telephone exchange boasting 40 connections for the city’s 40,000 inhabitants. Only the really wealthy could afford a telephone, and the fact it was a status symbol is reflected in the colourful decorations of some of the earliest handsets. The number of connections grew proportionally to the increase in population, and in 1928 the first automated telephone exchange was introduced.

I have seen quite a few historical telephone exchanges in my museum travels, but I’ve never had one demonstrated to me before. Now I have a much clearer understanding of how they work (my impromptu guide also insisted on taking my picture, as a souvenir, posing as a telephone exchange lady, and I fear he would have been offended had I refused). Guided tours normally aren’t my thing, but this young man’s friendly enthusiasm to show off his museum to me, his impressive knowledge of the collection and, I have to admit, the one on one attention, resulted in me staying almost 45 minutes in a museum that would, at best, take you 20 minutes to look around if you could read the labels. He was quite humble in insisting that he wasn’t a curator since he hadn’t taken the relevant exam, but to me he made a pretty convincing impression of one.

Other interesting facts that I learned during my visit include:

  • Vilim Schwarz was the man who first got a licence to build a telephone exchange in Zagreb, but when the State saw there was money to be made they quickly took it away again.
  • Since it was still during the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, permission had to be granted to build an exchange. Hence all early telephones were from Budapest, as the permission was only given in exchange for buying their products.
  • The technology, however, came from Sweden – from a little company called Eriksson ;-)
  • In the early days before plastic, wires were insulated with paper and silk, which led to frequent disruptions of the lines when they became wet.
  • When the first telephone wires were stretched across the roof tops of Zagreb, people complained about the noise from the vibrations and demanded that they be torn down again.
  • The vibrating poles also caused woodpeckers to think they were full of worms, so subsequently they hacked the poles to pieces.
  • Before the days of circuit breakers, making a telephone call could kill you if lightning struck sending high voltage through the line while you were on the phone!

The museum is free and has been open since 1953. There is only one room for exhibits, the majority of which is taken up by items relating to telecommunications and about a quarter dedicated to the postal system. They also have a foyer with an introduction and a few Roman objects, and a space where they display art and craft work from projects that they run with local schools. Due to the lack of space and the building being protected so that no changes of extensions can be made, much of the 2,000 or so exhibits are currently stored in the archives.

While it’s not a museum that you’ll want to go out of your way to visit, if you’re passing through Zagreb go check it out. Unfortunately I did not catch the name of my enthusiastic guide, else I would recommend you ask for him, but I hope he is on duty when you go!

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