Rob Schmitz / NPR
SPLIT, Croatia – There is a lot of hype around Froggyland. The museum brochure, located outside the walls of the old Split Palace built for the 4th century Roman Emperor Diocletian, states: “Froggyland and first love will never be forgotten!
On the Tripadvisor travel site, Froggyland has 644 reviews, six times more than the local art museum and twice that of the city’s world-famous Archaeological Museum. It even surpasses the “Game of Thrones” museum; parts of the series were filmed nearby.
Most reviews have five stars, like this one:
“Froggytastic !!! Probably the best stuffed frog museum I have ever visited.”
The sounds of a lily pond played through outdoor speakers greet visitors. Inside, it’s quiet, as the 507 frogs on display have been dead for over a century. But they do look alive and well, thanks to the work of Ferenc Mere, a mustached Hungarian taxidermist who lived from 1878 to 1947 and spent 10 of his years catching frogs, killing them and stuffing them – before organizing them in a variety of exhibits that showed them living human lives.
Somehow her frogs ended up in what is now Serbia, from where they eventually made their way to their permanent home in Split, along Croatia’s Adriatic coast, where they have been examined by thousands of curious people over the past decade.
Taxidermy was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century, and anthropomorphic exhibits were a popular way to exhibit the evolution of the science and art of the practice. Mere arranged her frogs into 21 dioramas capturing typical human scenes from a century ago: a classroom with a frog teacher trying to restore order among naughty frog students; a few are hitting each other with rulers and another is holding a miniature pencil over his frog nose.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
In another exhibit, a few dozen frogs dance to the sound of a group of amphibians, while several others smoke, drink, and play pool and poker with tiny cards.
This was all too much for a Tripadvisor reviewer who punished the museum with one star in a review titled “Disgusting demonstration of animal cruelty”: “Yes, let’s kill thousands of frogs for art and ask people” Did you have fun “at the end … Go if you don’t have a soul.”
Most of the museum’s worst critics echo this one, and Froggyland owner Ivan Medvesek usually takes the time to respond. He explains that his museum exhibits taxidermy, which was popular a century ago when these frogs were stuffed. And if you’re against cruelty to animals, he asks, why bother to visit?
After my own visit to Froggyland, I meet Medvesek, nicknamed “Boss Itzo”. The burly, somber businessman seems a bit exhausted from Froggyland, perhaps because he was forced on him by his parents.
“Fifty years ago, someone left these frogs in an attic in Serbia, and my parents bought them,” he says, frowning. “At first they had a small traveling museum, then they opened it.” Years later, Froggyland was passed down to him.
Medvesek’s temper comes on when he shows me that none of the frogs have incisions. This is an expert level of taxidermy requiring the guts to be removed from the frogs’ mouths before carefully replacing them with cork and sawdust to help preserve their corpses.
Medvesek says the people who appreciate Froggyland the most are American and British tourists. The Croats are not in it.
“The locals don’t like my museum,” he says with a chuckle. “They would rather eat frogs than see them in a museum.”
Rob Schmitz / NPR
Ticket sales were skyrocketing before the pandemic. Froggyland welcomed 50,000 visitors in 2019, a record year for tourism in Croatia. Since the pandemic, the numbers have dropped to a few thousand.
And that is why he will not pass Froggyland on to the next generation of Medvesek.
“It’s no longer profitable,” he says. “And American investors really want to buy it.”
He won’t reveal who is buying Froggyland, but he hopes the museum will continue to inspire people like Crispy C, a Tripadvisor contributor who gave Froggyland five stars last July, at the height of the pandemic.
“Sometimes a mirror of society works best for contemplating and understanding your own life, existence and life purpose,” he writes. “Froggyland is exactly that mirror.”
Medvesek says he’s not sure what to do after he retires. For now, he’s happy that Froggyland is headed to the United States, where he thinks people will fully appreciate him.