Along dimmed corridors in an elegant villa in central Belgrade, visitors are treated to a flashy presentation of Nikola Tesla’s technology — as well as a huge array of the visionary scientist’s clothes, hundreds of instruments, and even his ashes.
The Serbian museum, dedicated to everything to do with the 19th-century inventor and electricity pioneer, remained in relative obscurity for decades under the communist-run former Yugoslavia. But thanks to a global revival of interest in the scientist, the collection is now drawing big crowds from home and abroad.
Museum staff say some 130,000 people visited last year, compared to about 30,000 a year in the past — when its audience included generations of local school children but hardly anyone from abroad. Now the small museum is ranked among the top must-see destination for tourists.
Tesla is best known for developing the alternating current that helped safely distribute electricity at great distances, including from the hydro-electric plant at the Niagara Falls in mid-1890s. He experimented with X-ray and radio technology, working in rivalry with Thomas Edison.
Although he’s known to many science lovers, his following and name-recognition among the general public has rocketed in recent years thanks to Paypal billionaire Elon Musk’s Tesla electric car. In the U.S., Tesla admirers have raised money through crowdfunding to purchase his laboratory In Shoreham, N.Y.
An ethnic Serb born in 1856 in the Austrian Empire in present-day Croatia, Tesla spent most of his life abroad, working in Budapest and Paris before emigrating to the U.S. in 1884.
The Tesla Museum in Belgrade holds a vast array of the scientist’s personal items, from his sleepwear, shaving kit, tailor-made suit and cane to tens of thousands of documents and his awards. Even pieces of furniture from the New Yorker Hotel room 3327, where Tesla spent the last ten years of his life — his bed, fridge, metal lockers and a cupboard — are included.
“He was a man who took great care of his belongings and saved a large number of documents, so thanks to that we can now reconstruct his life and his work,” curator Milica Kesler said. “He was fully aware of the importance of what he was doing.”
Packed in some sixty trunks and containers, Tesla’s entire property first arrived in the former Yugoslavia on a ship from New York in 1951, eight years after his death. Authorities set up the museum in 1952, which later struggled with scarce funds and low attendance.
Nowadays, thrilled visitors are given fluorescent light sticks that light up wirelessly with the discharge from the Tesla coil, a four-meter-tall transformer circuit that generates electricity. In a separate room, in a somewhat macabre setting of dimmed lights and dark drapes, are Tesla’s ashes in a golden ball urn.
There are now so many visitors that the museum has extended its working hours and introduced more guided tours. Museum worker Pavle Petrovic says “the holiday season is the busiest, of course, but numbers stay high throughout the year.”
Although Tesla visited Belgrade just once for 31 hours, Serbia celebrates him as the pride of the nation. Belgrade’s airport and a new city boulevard are named after Tesla, his image is on souvenirs, and the Serbian Orthodox Church wants Tesla’s ashes placed in the country’s main religious temple, triggering protests by the liberal scientific community.
Typical of the Balkan divide, neighboring Croatia also claims Tesla as its own, turning his house in the home village of Smiljan into a memorial center. The rival former Yugoslav republics have marked important dates in Tesla’s life separately amid strained relations stemming from the 1990s’ bloody breakup of the joint ex-federation.
Away from the crowds, Tesla’s archive of more than 160,000 documents, scientific plans, manuscripts and letters is stored carefully in the museum’s basement. Curator Kesler said Tesla made the experts’ job easy by keeping a neat chronology of the documents.
“Sometimes I have a feeling he left us some kind of a path, a guideline to follow,” she said with a smile.