SPLIT, Croatia — There's a lot of hype surrounding Froggyland. The brochure for the museum, located outside the walls of Split's ancient palace built for the 4th century Roman Emperor Diocletian, declares: "Froggyland and first love will never be forgotten!"
On the travel website Tripadvisor, Froggyland has 644 reviews, six times more than the local fine art museum and twice that of the city's world-renowned archaeological museum. It even outperforms the "Game of Thrones" museum; parts of the series were filmed nearby.
Most of the reviews have five stars, like this one:
"Froggytastic!!! Probably the best stuffed frog museum I have ever visited."
The sounds of a lily pad pond piped through outdoor speakers greet visitors. Inside, it's quiet, because the 507 frogs on display have been dead for more than a century. But they look very much alive, 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 arranging them into a variety of exhibits that showed them living out human lives.
Somehow his frogs ended up in what's now Serbia, from where they eventually made their way to their permanent home in Split, along Croatia's Adriatic coast — where they've been examined by thousands of curiosity seekers over the past decade.
Taxidermy was all the rage in the early 20th century, and anthropomorphic displays were a popular way to exhibit the evolving science and art of this practice. Mere arranged his frogs into 21 dioramas capturing typical human scenes from a century ago: a classroom with a froggy teacher trying to restore order among naughty froggy students; a couple of them hitting each other with rulers and one balancing a miniature pencil on his froggy nose.
In another exhibit, a couple dozen frogs ballroom dance to the music of an amphibian band, while several others smoke, drink and play billiards and poker with tiny cards.
All of this was too much for one Tripadvisor reviewer who punished the museum with a single star in a review titled "Disgusting display of animal cruelty": "Yes, let's kill thousands of frogs for art and ask people 'did you have fun' at the end of it...Go if you have no soul."
Most of the museum's worst reviews echo this one, and Froggyland owner Ivan Medvesek typically takes the time to write back. He explains that his museum displays taxidermy, which was popular a century ago, when these frogs were stuffed. And if you're against cruelty to animals, he asks, why bother visiting?
After my own visit to Froggyland, I meet Medvesek, who goes by the nickname "Boss Itzo." The burly, somber-looking businessman seems a little worn out by Froggyland, possibly because it was foisted on him by his parents.
"Fifty years ago, someone left these frogs behind in an attic in Serbia, and my parents bought them," he says with a frown. "At first, they had a little traveling museum and then they opened this." Years later, Froggyland was passed down to him.
Medvesek's disposition brightens when he shows me how none of the frogs have incisions. It's an expert level of taxidermy requiring removal of the innards from the frogs' mouths before carefully replacing them with cork and sawdust to help preserve their corpses.
Medvesek says the people who most appreciate Froggyland are American and British tourists. Croatians aren't into it.
"Locals don't like my museum," he says with a chuckle. "They'd rather eat frogs than see them in a museum."
Ticket sales were soaring before the pandemic. Froggyland had 50,000 visitors in 2019, a record year for tourism in Croatia. Since the pandemic, numbers plummeted to just a few thousand.
And that's why he will not pass down Froggyland to the next generation of Medveseks.
"It's no longer profitable," he says. "And investors in America really want to buy it."
He won't disclose who's 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, during the height of the pandemic.
"Sometimes a mirror of society works best to contemplate and understand your own life, existence, and purpose of life," he writes. "Froggyland is exactly that mirror."
Medvesek says he's not sure what he'll do after he retires. For now, he's happy Froggyland is bound for the U.S., where he believes people will fully appreciate it.
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