The Galeb (seagull) ship, wasting away for years in Rijeka harbour, is due to be renovated with money from European funds and turned into a museum, depicting three totalitarian regimes of the 20th century
The former ship of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito was exposed to neglect and decay after the fall of Yugoslavia, firstly in Montenegro and then in Croatia’s largest port of Rijeka, where it has spent the last 15 years collecting rust. Despite the desire of Rijeka town authorities to renovate the ship and turn it into a museum, the lack of funding became so prominent that representatives of the Rijeka opposition proposed to have it scuttled in the Rijeka waters so that it may at least become an attraction for divers. The last chance for Galeb seems to have come from European Union funds, whose means will be used to salvage the memory of one of the largest symbols of Tito’s regime, Deutsche Welle reported on April 5, 2017.
The famous ship was built in fascist Italy in 1936 to transport tropical fruit, but at the beginning of the war it was turned into a military vessel. After being torpedoed in Libyan waters, it arrived in 1941 for repairs in Trieste, where it was commandeered by Germans after the capitulation of Italy in 1943. It served them as a minelayer under the name Kiebitz. It was sunk again in 1944 in Allied bombing of Rijeka harbour, recovered from the sea only in 1948.
It was renovated in the Pula shipyard, quite luxuriously for those times. The Yugoslav Navy used it as an educational ship and it quickly became Tito’s favourite means of transport, from his first voyage with the vessel to visit Winston Churchill in 1953, all the way to its last sailing from Brijuni to Zadar in 1979. At the time of the fall of Yugoslavia Galeb was, like most of the Yugoslav Navy fleet, dwindling in mooring in Montenegro.
At the end of the 1990s it was bought by the American ship-owner of Greek descent John Paul Papanicolau, planning to renovate it into a luxurious yacht. The ship returned to Rijeka, where it was due to be renovated in the Viktor Lenac shipyard, but that plan went sour. The Greek ship-owner fell into financial trouble and due to unpaid bills Galeb ended up at public auction, but not before Papanicolau removed historical valuables, such as plates with the names of Nehru, Nasser, Hruščov, Churchill, Gandhi and many others which adorned the deck. As the Culture Ministry declared Galeb in 2006 a cultural monument, Rijeka was given pre-emption rights and bought it for 150 thousand American dollars.
The plan of Rijeka Mayor Vojko Obersnel was to turn the ship attraction into a museum, but the plan proved to be too ambitious. The famous vessel thus became dead capital and a serious expense for the town budget.
With the entrance of Croatia into the EU and successful application of Rijeka for European Culture Capital 2020, better days seem to be ahead for Galeb. Rijeka applied for EU funds and the project of turning Galeb into a museum is a step from reality. The contract between Rijeka and Ministry of Regional Development and EU Funds is due to be signed next month. The project base is centred around the fact that Galeb does not only have a communist past, but also a fascist and Nazi past, the backbone of its future life. This way the author of the Galeb renovation concept, award-winning Croatian designer Nikolina Jelavić-Mitrović, obviously wants to avoid the pitfall of turning Galeb into a monument to Tito and Yugoslavia.
“It will not be an exclusive museum of ‘Tito’s Galeb’ nor a museum which would uncritically glorify Tito’s era and his regime, but a museum which will critically question three totalitarian regimes this ship served under. This is also the history of Rijeka in the 20th century,” explained for Deutsche Welle Rijeka Culture Department head Ivan Šarar.
The award-winning curator Sabina Sabolović warned, however, that the term totalitarianism should not be used to connect the three regimes Galeb sailed under. “Equalising regimes of fascism and Nazism with the Yugoslav period is for me dangerous and unacceptable. Since the project will be realised in Rijeka, which has proven for decades to be a town nurturing its anti-fascist and socialist tradition, I do not believe that any level of the project will have space for such reactionary or revisionist approach,” said Sabolović, who participated as a WHW Collective member in selecting Croatian artists for the Venice Biennale several years ago and whose work has often dealt with sensitive ideological and political topics.
It is clear, however, that emphasising the triple totalitarian past of Galeb is connected with many critics of this project, who see in Galeb only a symbol of a hated regime, and in Rijeka authorities exclusively a glorifier of that regime.
This is probably why the Galeb project was not applied for EU funds as a separate project, but in a joint application through which Rijeka will also renovate the management building of the sugar refinery from 1752, a first-grade monument of Rijeka baroque industrial heritage. The renovation of both objects is worth 81 million kuna, with 69 million coming from the EU.
“In both the case of Galeb and the sugar refinery they are protected monuments to heritage, and the goal of the project is to place that heritage in public service and present their especially interesting and atypical past to the public. This is an interesting part of Rijeka history, and the history of seafaring, shipping and industry,” explained Šarar and added the goal is to complete renovations by 2020.
Galeb has, according to Šarar, survived all three totalitarian regimes, just like Rijeka, and will be renovated in almost the same place where it was sunk in 1944. “If we want to be a mature society, despite all the controversy, we need to take a stance toward that period, not renounce the past,” added Šarar, who is not only unafraid of the criticism of the project, but is looking forward to it. “We begin with the fact that Tito, as a part of our past, was undoubtedly controversial, and it is generally known that controversial topics are the most attractive ones. This is good for our project, as people like that,” Šarar is convinced.